Perhaps we can call this ‘slow theatre,’ as an analog to the ‘slow food’ movement. George Bernard Shaw’s epic five-act Back to Methuselah is now being concluded, a full three years after Washington Stage Guild began presenting it. Even more so than Shaw’s other works, it is a drama mainly composed of ideas, typically expressed in very long and very literate monologues and Socratic dialogues. It’s a work of highly idiosyncratic philosophy which you could just as well study on the page, although it is rather more pleasant to hear it delivered in the rich voices of the Guild’s able cast.
Under the guidance of director Bill Largess, the company divided up Shaw’s five acts, which would normally take several hours to perform, into three ‘parts.’ Their first part , presented in 2014, contained Shaw’s dramatization of the Fall from Eden, Cain’s first murder, and then leapt to the 20th century to present his core idea. There, his characters wondered whether the human race could be saved from itself (Shaw having recently witnessed World War I) by ‘going back to Methuselah.’ That is, by living much longer lives – under the theory that just as soon as humans grow mature enough to be able to run the world, they are old and soon die.
2015’s second part – comprising the third and fourth of Shaw’s acts – strode into the future to witness the first man and woman to live 300 years, having simply stopped aging upon seriously considering the notion that they could live longer. That pair’s descendants, in part four, formed a near-immortal race who lived separately from humans, offering advice but staying aloof. We were left off with those long-lived people, learning of the depravities of the short-lived world, deciding it was about time that they ran things instead.
And thus we are brought to this third presentation, Shaw’s fifth act, subtitled “As Far As Thought Can Reach.” Set in the year 31,920 AD, it gives us a look at the consequences of an uber-mature society populated by multi-centenarians who can only die from injury. We meet a cohort of full-grown ‘children’ in the first years of their long life (Brit Herring, Lynn Steinmetz, Michael Avolio, Malinda Kathleen Reese, and Frank Britton). They are tended by the ‘ancients’ (Laura Giannarelli and Vincent Clark), who mostly spend their long years wandering the wilderness, alone and without any obvious purpose. These ancients scorn the pursuits of the young, the kind of activities we take for granted as the very stuff of life: art, music, love, sex, education.
The plot, such as it is, only consists of a couple of episodes: a young person realizing they are ready to leave behind their childhood and live like an ancient, a ‘newborn’ adult hatching from an egg, and a scientist named Pygmalion (Britton) re-creating two primitive humans (Steinmetz and Conrad Feininger) in a lab. These all provide Shaw with the opportunity to delve deeply into the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything.
As compared to the previous two installments, this one is drier and less willfully absurd. The situations presented are no less silly on the surface than the first part’s wacky politicians or the second part’s British stereotypes. However, something of the satirical edge is now missing, as the themes veer into territory somewhere between Buddhism, existentialism, and nihilism. The stage-essays are enlivened by the cast as much as possible – Britton and Giannarelli in particular deserve credit for bringing a sense of character to their spoken treatises. But the result is still less weirdly enthralling than the previous episodes.
Want to go?
Back to Methuselah, Part 3
closes April 16, 2017
Details and tickets
This is disappointing – anyone who didn’t see the previous parts might feel disinclined to jump in now. No knowledge of the previous plots is necessary – a video refresher is at the start of the show – and the idea of a future world of undying people is interesting enough without knowing how we arrived there. That said, anyone considering seeing this production might be well-served, time permitting, in first catching the Guild’s staged readings of part 1 and part 2, on March 29 and April 5, respectively.
The questions put forth here, of leadership and the best way to get the human race to grow up already, are terribly relevant in our political climate. The company’s clean and delicately-designed production intelligently avoids easy answers. It merely gives us piles and piles of considerations. It’s like being presented a table full of raw ingredients, and left to make the meals that we choose from it step by careful step. If everything else in our theatrical and entertainment landscape tends towards prepared desserts and spicy, flashy gourmet platters, this is as far away from that – as slow and as demanding – as one can get.
Given how infrequently this science-fiction epic is performed, this might well be the only chance in your own limited lifetime to see it onstage. At the very least, given the rate at which technology is advancing it may be your last chance to see it performed while it still qualifies as science-fiction.
Back to Methuselah, Part 3 by George Bernard Shaw . Directed by Bill Largess . Featuring Michael Avolio, Frank Britton, Vincent Clark, Madeleine Farrington, Conrad Feininger, Laura Giannarelli, Brit Herring, Malinda Kathleen Reese, Lynn Steinmetz . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie . Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows . Set Design: Shirong Gu . Costume Design: Stacey Thomann Hamilton . Sound Design: Frank DiSalvo, Jr . Choreography: Annaliese Neaman . Production Assistant: Daniel Debner . Egg Design: Joe Largess . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.