Center Theater

If there was one heresy George Bernard Shaw was born to destroy, it was romanticism. In, among many others, Candida, Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, Arms and the Man, and Man and Superman, Shaw’s poet-lovers reveal themselves as the blindest characters of all, so possessed by their favorite phantoms they wax oblivious to every human and social reality around them. Opposing such ineffectual idealists (who are invariably male) is their natural, Shaw-given antidote — the realist. Shaw lulls his audiences into distrusting these realists — until the playwright triumphantly turns the tables to prove who’s superior.

Since these rare creatures usually come in two sexes per play, the plot’s purpose is to see that both realists find each other — but not too soon and usually by process of elimination. Together at last, they can then consummate the Life Force (to Shaw the ultimate subtext that works within his realists for its own fulfillment). Unless the poor, self-deluded poet wises up (like Cusins in Major Barbara) and marries the realist, he ends up merely a plot device to trigger false audience expectations. So much for Byron, Keats, and Shelley.

Even in Three by Shaw — Shavian shorties dusted off by Center Theater to mixed results — the two faces of Shaw square off with gusto. In Village Wooing (1933) a snobbish, hidebound travel writer (Marc Vann), symbolically named only “A,” meets and tries to forget “Z,” a garrulous village postmistress (Hilary Hammond) enjoying a world cruise she won in a contest. Though her nattering busybodyness irritates every sensitive cell in A’s being, Z’s small-town sophistries and blathering non sequiturs finally, yes, make this self-confessed “writing machine” actually laugh (the first defeat in the Shavian battle of the sexes).

A, this romantic Henry Higgins (in Pygmalion he’s pure realist), ends up a tamed, apron-wearing shop clerk and entrapped fiance, a former world traveler reduced to vegetating peacefully in this hamlet in the Wiltshire Downs. Meanwhile, too much the realist to do anything as silly as marry a man she loved (“he could make me so miserable” — unlike A), Z merely vaporizes, “Now that I’ve nailed you, I wonder at my own nerve.” (Now it’s safe to play the innocent.) Z and A have become in effect L and M, because, like water, the Life Force, seeking its own level, leveled them with a vengeance.

Shaw’s skewering dialogue piles up the paradoxes and contrasts the characters. Dan LaMorte’s direction does much the same, but, unfortunately, doesn’t go further to make us see what the characters themselves do not, that A and Z have changed places. Vann gets trapped in a sneering, priggish deadpan, and Hammond in a demure slyness. Though Village Wooing still makes a charming chemistry lesson, it is staged without the outer realism that the ridiculous characters demand.

The “interlude,” Dark Lady of the Sonnets, is typical of Shaw’s perverse, lifelong love-hate relationship with Shakespeare, the only writer he ever considered a rival. In this preposterous unhistorical trifle, the romantic ninny Shakespeare (Donald Coates) has bribed his way into Whitehall Palace, intent on a clandestine rendezvous with his “dark lady of the sonnets” (whom Shaw decides was the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Mary Fitton). Instead, the ardent suitor mistakes sleepwalking Queen Elizabeth (Carole Gutierrez) for his aristocratic mistress (Janis Flax).

The mix-up doesn’t matter, since misogynistic Shakespeare is more intent on plagiarizing famous quotes from everyone around him than on wooing. And when he isn’t jotting down other people’s deathless remarks, he’s puffing himself up with small-town smugness before his queen, bragging about how his father’s eminence as an alderman outshines Henry VIII’s. Finally — it’s the reason Shaw wrote this 1910 fund-raiser — Shakespeare and Her Majesty urge the audience to contribute to a British national theater (a dream that took longer than Shaw’s long lifetime to fulfill).

Eileen Manganaro’s dedicated staging makes this silly sketch matter. Solid work comes from Gutierrez’s complex and deservedly dignified Elizabeth (here the arch-realist) and Flax’s much put-upon Dark Lady, who’s sick of this lifesucking writer who will “tic you down to anatomize your very soul.” As the parasitical poet, Coates looks the part but blusters too much (the mean-spirited lines are more than enough to hoist the bard on his own petard). In the Alfred Doolittle-like part of a venal beefeater whose colorful expressions Shakespeare shamelessly steals blind, Kevin Beyer puts a fine salt-of-the-earth seasoning on every soon-to-be-immortal line.

The best known of this trio, the 1904 self-parody How He Lied to Her Husband, sends up a favorite Shavian plot: a young, self-inflated idealist tries to compromise into marriage the married woman he so abstractly adores. “He” (RJ Coleman) has written some very revealing poems to “She” (Kelly Thompson) that her husband has just discovered. Named Aurora in the poems as she is, alas, in life, She turns out to be no Shavian realist ready to damn the consequences and defy society, but a homebody terrified of being found out. It’s the seemingly fatuous husband (Dan Janecek) who, ironically, is the realist. Instead of springing into an Anna Karenina-like outrage over this apparent cuckolding, he rages over the poet’s brazen lie that he never could have written his verses to his Aurora. Her husband’s daffy defense of her irresistibility, coupled with Aurora’s own bourgeois fear of scandal, wins back the wife.

In the final irony, the numbed ex-dreamer brokenly consents to letting the husband publish his heart-wrought, adulterous poems as a tribute to his wife’s beauty. As in Econo-Art’s excellent The Underpants (written a year later and eerily resembling this vignette), realistic respectability has vanquished untested idealism — in art, as in life.

Shaw’s introduction calls this “Piece d’occasion . . . a sample of what can be done with even the most hackneyed stage framework by filling it in with an observed touch of actual humanity instead of with doctrinaire romanticism” and adds, “Nothing in the theatre is staler than the situation of husband, wife, and lover, or the fun of knockabout farce.” Director Dale Calandra clearly never came near this passage. He plays this precisely as ferocious slapstick, a cartoon-crude spoof of drawing room comedy where the only dramatic payoff is seeing the husband and lover roll about on the floor. Shaw was after bigger fish than such cheap burlesque as Coleman’s get-the-net poet and Janecek’s stuffed-shirt spouse. Only Thompson’s very professional wife exudes the kind of concentrated self-ignorance Shaw anatomizes so mercilessly.

The beautifully executed mural backdrop is by John Murbach, who also provides the telling period costumes. Donald Coates’s sound design is particularly effective in the Mozartean excerpts that decorate Village Wooing — but in Dark Lady the chimes of Big Ben would not be heard in Shakespeare’s time.

In last week’s review of Pegasus Players’ Chicago Young Playwrights Festival a somewhat confusing program — and I — scrambled my raves. Ed Townley was responsible for the excellent staging of Changes as well as Reality, and Don Mayo was behind the good work in Just Coolin’ Out. Sorry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.