It’s difficult to come into the middle of something, but, to take a stab at a George Bernard Shaw-like observation, aren’t we all living all our lives having come into the middle of history? If so, perhaps it’s not inappropriate to take in Washington Stage Guild’s production of Parts 3 and 4 of Back to Methuselah whether or not you saw Parts 1 and 2 – or whether or not you who did see it can remember much of it.
The five-part speculative tale by Shaw is so long that the Guild is splitting up the performance over three years, with director Bill Largess and most of the cast returning from last year to perform Part 3 (“The Thing Happens”) and Part 4 (“The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman”) now. As a meditation on human longevity and the upsides and downsides of extended life experience, it’s strangely appropriate to see with 2014’s production a quickly-fading memory, although the Guild are kind enough to offer a slideshow refresher at show’s start.
In those first two parts, Shaw visited the distant past with Adam and Eve in Eden and after the fall, when their son Cain invented murder, then leapt to his then-present day of the 1920s to visit the Barnabas family, who propose going “back to Methuselah,” with humans living 300 years – the better to improve society with increased maturity.
The Barnabas family failed to convince the British prime ministers of the time of their scheme when it was learned there was no scientific proposal for how to achieve this feat, but merely the idea that if humans believed they could live to 300, they could do it. And, as the title reveals, Part 3 is concerned with what happens when humans, indeed, do it.
Conrad Feininger, as he did in Part 2, plays a childish parody of a British prime minister with amusing self-conviction; his Burge-Lubin holds court with his number-crunching Accountant General (Michael Avolio) and wise assistant Confucius (Jacob Yeh) as they consider the moral and legal implications of the first potentially real case of a multi-centenarian.
With the character of Confucius (no relation besides in name to the historical personage), we have the first instance of Shaw’s strange and sometimes antiquated views bubbling up into the story. As with the 2014 production, Largess and the cast have a deceptively breezy touch that allows the play to be both silly and heavily philosophical, which is good, because the proceedings only get sillier and sometimes harder to swallow beginning with the introduction of Confucius. Yeh is appropriately sage and playful as the stereotyped Chinese adviser, who has been hired by the British government of 2170 A.D. as part of a cross-cultural program established when the British realized they are simply not as good at governing the British people as the Chinese are. (The Chinese, for their part, import Scots to govern their own homeland.)
There are many musings in these two parts of Back to Methuselah on the nature of the British people, and the uniquely morose yet creative character of the Irish and Jewish people, and the loudness of Americans and so forth. Some of these are outdated tangents, easy to accept as tics of Shaw’s writing circa 1922; some seem to be key to Shaw’s intent, as a somewhat satirical look at the British national character; and some, unfortunately, verge on uncomfortable or even offensive, at least for a modern audience.
Oddly enough, these moments of historical nationalism and near-racist utterances – not to mention the characters’ frequent dismissals of the intelligence of women, which come too easily, even if Shaw’s own writing of his women characters suggests that he does not honestly keep with these viewpoints – give some credence to Shaw’s own theme. While we living today are not longer-living than the people of Shaw’s time, we are, in some sense, as a society, more grown up, more matured – or at least we may hope so, and feel confident saying so when it comes to our views of American Indians and women. At best, it seems absurd and is distracting that Shaw was incapable of imagining that in his future of 2170 A.D. – let alone in the 3000 A.D. of Part Four – there would still be men who would say, pointedly, “I have no need of a lady doctor.”
At least he was clever enough to predict (something like) Internet video chat, though.
BACK TO METHUSELAH,
The Thing Happens and The Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman
Closes March 15, 2015
Washington Stage Guild
at Undercroft Theatre
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 240.582.0050
By the time Part Four gets going, the show is as much a marvel to watch for these differences between Shaw’s views of the future and our own; in some ways, his removal from our technology and time give him a broad insight we cannot access from our place in his future.
The cast has a harder task in this part, portraying the characters of this 100-year-old vision of a 1000-year future; along these lines, Vincent Clark as the Elderly Gentlemen, a sort of pre-emptively antiquated traveler of typical Shavian eloquence, and Stephanie Schmalzle, as his adversarial guide, both impetuously youthful and more-evolved, stand out in particular, although the entire cast fit together well. If anything, they’re perhaps a little bit too comfortable with the material and each other, if that is possible; they don’t dig into each other perhaps as much as the play calls for, and some of the emotional impact of the play’s various reunions and discoveries are lessened.
For any still concerned, I will report that my companion in the audience, who had not seen the first two parts last year, followed along just fine and didn’t feel she was missing anything. For my part, I felt that some of the deeper threads of Shaw’s work were lost with my fading memory, particularly when it comes to the parallels between the Garden of Eve scenes and the later ones, as well as small callbacks that I sensed but could not specifically recall. Still, there’s more than enough meat here to chew on even if some of the seasoning is lost.
Furthermore, quite pleasingly, the set from last year returns, with its mobile sextet of gracefully monolithic curved pieces again suggesting, at once, fountains, trees, cathedrals, power, grace, and/or infinity, designed by Shirong Gu. Costumer Debbie Kennedy has more and more fun with the costumes the farther the story gets from contemporary fashion. Altogether, the company keep the language fleet, the jokes clear, and each divergent characters’ point of view well-respected and fairly presented. Which is all very good because, if this “Metabiological Pentateuch,” as Shaw subtitled it, gets any weirder in the final part, we will need their steady hand as we venture into 31,920 A.D next year.