Since its inception, Washington Stage Guild has done 22 productions of 27 plays by the playwright with whom the group is most closely associated, George Bernard Shaw. (Some of the productions were evenings of Shaw’s one-act plays, which is why the two numbers do not correspond.) Now, WSG has begun the ambitious project of staging Back to Methuselah.
Many of Shaw’s plays are, um, epic in scale, but Back to Methuselah stands alone in its scope. The five individual plays, beginning in the Garden of Eden and ending thousands of years in the future, are rarely produced, and so infrequently as a group that full professional productions in this country can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first two plays in the cycle are currently on display at the Undercroft Theatre in Mount Vernon Square United Methodist Church through March 16th. Two more will follow next season, and the season after that, WSG will conclude the project during the company’s 30th anniversary season.
To those who say that Mr G B Shaw is a playwright whose prominence and relevance have diminished over the past few decades, WSG responds with a resounding, “Pshaw!”
Bill Largess, Artistic Director of WSG and conceiver of the plan to tackle Back to Methuselah, spoke with me last week in the WSG office right off the Undercroft auditorium and just before a performance.
“Early on, over the first 10 years, we did a Shaw play every other year. But, frankly, we discovered that the Shaw play would always be the best-selling show of the season. So, we decided to bite the bullet and do one every year.” The last Shaw-less season at WSG was 1997. “We did Oscar Wilde instead.” (That was a production of An Ideal Husband that garnered several Helen Hayes nominations, including one for Largess in the lead role of Lord Goring.) The pattern has been to follow one of the better known of the Shaw titles with one that is less well known.
Largess has been involved in all of the Shaw productions at WSG in one way or another, as an actor, director, or dramaturg. He took the company’s reins following the sudden death in 2008 of founding Artistic Director John MacDonald. During my talk with Largess, and after the show when we were joined by several of the cast, MacDonald’s presence loomed large as his name came up again and again in stories about the company, its mission, and its history. MacDonald’s wife, Ann Norton, remains the company’s Executive Director. She greeted me upon my arrival (it’s the rare WSG audience member who doesn’t find her running the box office) and laid out a lovely spread for our post-show interview.
Largess explained that the company started with “a little group, most of whom are still involved.” Although that group made a lot of decisions collectively, and “it’s always been a group dynamic anyway, we all put a lot of trust in him [MacDonald]. In so many ways, our goal has been to continue and further what he was doing. We’re committed to continuity.” The company felt “a responsibility to keep this going, despite the personal grief, because he was so instrumental in getting us to the stage we were at.”
Accepting my description of him as “an accidental Artistic Director,” Largess said that “having been an actor and dramaturg, I took very slow baby steps toward directing. Although I enjoyed it and had some success, and although I had a lot of input into the selection of seasons, I had no thought of being an Artistic Director.” He likened his accession to the post as being struck by lightning. (Largess has directed the beginning of the Back to Methuselah project and expects to direct the next two parts.)
Back to GBS, Largess told me that it is “very shocking, the ways in which the plays are continually topical. Audiences will ask, ‘Did you add that part?’ and we’ll answer ‘No, we didn’t, Shaw put that in 100 years ago.’ He’s still very fresh; he is still relevant in many ways. They are great plays with wonderful things to say. Only four or five are frequently done, and so an awful lot of wonderful stuff has fallen through the cracks.”
Forty years ago, when Sondheim updated and made a musical of The Frogs, he replaced Aristophanes’ debate between Aeschylus and Euripides with one between Shakespeare and Shaw, which is indicative of the regard in which Shaw was held in the middle of the last century. His stock seems to have fallen recently. WSG and the eponymous festival in Niagara notwithstanding, Largess admits that Shaw, these days, is “unjustly neglected.” Asked if this could be cyclical, with Shaw destined for rediscovery, or if he might fade into obscurity, like Galsworthy (my example) or Pinero (Largess’ example), contemporaries who are almost never performed outside of the Shaw Festival (which focuses not only on Shaw but also on other plays of his era), Largess replied, “I’d like to think it’s cyclical. When people see how prescient and forward thinking he was, he will regain his place on the broader stage. Of course, there’s no way to know, but because of the plays’ wit, I don’t think they will ever become that obscure or forgotten.”
After the performance, when Largess and I were joined by many in the Back to Methuselah cast, Laura Giannarelli told me that the WSG story began with a production of Heartbreak House at Source Theatre Company. MacDonald directed a cast that included several graduates of the Catholic University theatre program. (“All that verbal training helps with Shaw,” Giannarelli said.) The production, uncut, ran three and a half hours. The group would repair, after the curtain, to the Childe Harold on Dupont Circle. (Ah, the Childe…I do miss you so.) The opening had been delayed because Source’s production of Extremities was extended. “The paradox was that that gave us so much extra rehearsal time,” Largess interjected. Giannarelli continued, saying that the subject at the table at the Childe would frequently revolve around how different it would be if they weren’t at Source but if “we were the producers.”
Lynn Steinmetz chimed in that what they learned was that “people will come out of the woodwork to see Shaw.” The production took off, and they had to “sell standing room — people were standing in the aisle. I had to noodle people with my parasol to make an entrance from the lobby.”
Largess described the reaction as they moved from the idea to the actuality of founding a company: “Does Washington need another company? There’s twelve already!”
Giannarelli continued, “Shaw writes great roles for women, fabulous roles, strong women, and he gives every character an honest opportunity to express a point-of-view. There is no one he doesn’t give their due. You listen and think, ‘Yeah, yeah, he’s right,’ then the next guy talks, and he does this with everyone, including women.” Steinmetz concurred: “Including the ingenues. They’re fun, a lot of fun.” “Oh, yes, they wipe up the floor with the men,” Largess added.
Largess observed that “the nuts and bolts is the physical challenge of getting the words out, all of the ideas, bouncing with wonderful words, coming out.” “Exhilarating!,” Giannarelli agreed. “It gets tougher as you get older,” Steinmetz added. “You ask yourself, ‘Where can I breathe?’”
Regarding the challenge of trimming a famously verbose writer to meet the diminished attention span of the 21st Century audience, Steinmetz pointed out that sometimes, “if you don’t let Shaw get from point A to point B, you don’t get the laugh. It’s tough to cut Shaw’s arguments, because they are winding their way to something.” Largess added that, after an injudicious cut, “The next two pages don’t make sense.” Giannarelli described how a laugh line sometimes won’t work because you cut something two acts ago: “It’s prose but written with the intricacy of poetry. If you are missing an adjective, it affects the rhythm. It has to be that word and no other. If you get started on the wrong preposition, you’re lost. At first blush, it seems terrifying. But he is constantly employing opposites, which makes it easy to learn.” Ad-libbing your way through, Largess said, you realize that “that’s not as good as what Shaw says. It’s easy to memorize because it’s logical.”
Vincent Clark noted that “another challenge with the dialogue is that a long and complicated line will be interrupted in the middle with an aside.” He gave an example followed by a visual joke, that “the American Sign Language indicator for Shaw is…” and he used both hands to indicate jabbering. (I think it was a joke…)
Largess said that in Man and Superman, some of his speeches were so long that “I would be talking and could not stop to swallow. It would have stopped the play.” Much laughter ensued from a group who had received their share of Largess sprinkle.
Clark also offered an example of lines that sound so topical that audiences assume they have been added for a contemporary audience, as when, sometime after the Reagan era, WSG did On the Rocks, which featured a line, “Movie stars should not be Prime Minister.” Or something to that effect.
Shaw was prolific, and WSG has a lot of titles yet to tackle, though, Largess told me, “We’ve done all of the sort of great ones with smaller casts. What are left are the big ones: Saint Joan, The Devil’s Disciple, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Caesar and Cleopatra,” plays that might not fit on the Undercroft stage because of the size of the casts.
Largess said that Shaw “hasn’t faced the reinterpretation issue.” He then told me about a Shaw symposium he attended. A paper was presented concerning a Kabuki-inspired production of Major Barbara. Following the presentation, an older scholar said that “the problem with this sort of appeal is that, to a younger audience, Major Barbara is Kabuki.”
I asked about the idea that Shaw is really meant to be read, and not performed. Not surprisingly, that isn’t an attitude the WSG crew endorses. “When we are speaking these lines out loud is when they come alive to me,” Steinmetz said. “Everyone [every character] is dying to get their say, waiting for the pause because what I want to say is important. You have to listen to me!” Conrad Feininger admitted that when your character has that moment, that can be, before you are fully comfortable with your material, what “makes rehearsals terrifying. You think, ‘don’t let it be my turn!’”
BACK TO METHUSELAH, PART 1
Closes March 16, 2014
Washington Stage Guild
900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $50
Thursdays through Sundays
War stories continued: In response to a question about perceptions of Shaw (chiefly and erroneously based less on his work than on the ending, altered from Pygmalion, of My Fair Lady) as a male chauvinist, Giannarelli remembered, during Too True to be Good, when MacDonald “had the rather wonderful idea: the play ends with enormous speeches that were given by Bill Hamlin and Bill Largess, summing up a philosophy of life and the way things need to be done. John said he had this idea in the shower. When Bill and Bill start talking,” Giannarelli, Steinmetz, and Tricia McCauley would change into street clothes. MacDonald divided the last stage direction among the three, and its reading is how the play ended, making the point (before Beyoncé) that it is “really women who run the world.”
Another war story: When the first preview of Man and Superman clocked in at four hours and fifteen minutes, prompting 30 minutes worth of cuts between it and the second preview, Largess remembered, “It was terrifying. I kept asking myself, ‘Is this still in?’”
We ended with Largess reciting his longest line from Man and Superman, and Steinmetz recalling what another WSG Shaw alum, Steven Carpenter, once joked: “If you can’t remember what you’re supposed to say next, just turn to whomever just spoke and say, ‘That’s crap!’”
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