Great Catherine and Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress, ShawChicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center. Finally, a true test of Shaw lovers’ devotion: these Russian-themed trifles reveal G.B. at his most maddeningly capricious. Only the dedication of a crackerjack ensemble can separate the pleasing from the precious, as director Robert Scogin attempts to rescue these 1913 and 1917 one-acts from their obscurity.
The earlier of the two, Great Catherine, is set in 1776 and feeds on a cultural contrast: a bluff British captain (stiff-upper-lipped Steve Cardamone), improbably accompanied by his equally outspoken beloved (Julie Paparella), attracts the impulsive interest of Catherine the Great (Mary Michell). She pursues him, and a clash between Russian romanticism and English efficiency ensues. Diverting and decadent as Russia’s highly amused empress, Michell almost justifies Shaw’s clumsy homage to Catherine’s mystique. Still, jetsam is jetsam.
Unless it’s flotsam. Equally presentational but much shorter, Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress dates from a pivotal year. Departing from such dreary realities as Lenin and Trotsky, Shaw imagines the revolutionary “Beotia,” in which the former heir to the throne (by implication a Romanov) has converted to communism. The switch has shocked stuffy General Strammfest, a monarchist who never imagined that the grand duchess he played with as a child would become a strident firebrand. Tony Dobrowolski registers the reactionary general’s total discomfiture, and Alyson Green has fun as the opportunistic bolshevik royal. Silly stuff, but Shaw nonetheless.