Body Politic Theatre

Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman. Which shall use up the other? That is the issue between them. And it is all the deadlier because, in your romanticist cant, they love one another. –Jack Tanner in Man and Superman.

From Aristophanes’s Lysistrata to McClure’s The Beard, there have been God knows how many plays about the battle of the sexes. Man and Superman remains one of my favorites. George Bernard Shaw wrote this play with intelligence, wit, and a polemical insight into the differences between the sexes. These days, Shaw, perhaps the most Victorian of socialists, comes off somewhat unfashionably sexist. One thing you can say about the guy, though — he argues a hell of a case. So I was glad to find that the Body Politic production of Man and Superman let Shaw say his piece. Director Pauline Brailsford mounted a straightforward period show, and not the modern, post apocalyptic, or sci-fi sort of adaptation that we’ve come to expect here in Chicago.

The worthy opponents in this battle of the sexes are Ann Whitefield (played by Lisa Kaminir) and Jack Tanner (Peter Aylward). The conflict starts with the death of Ann’s father, whose will has appointed Jack as Ann’s guardian, or coguardian rather, along with the stodgy, very 19th-century Roebuck Ramsden. This poses a problem for Jack, a self-styled “revolutionist” and iconoclast, who rejects everything Ramsden believes in. But more importantly, Jack fears Ann’s way of doing whatever she pleases as if she were just following the wishes of her mother, her late father, or, now, her newly appointed guardians. Only Jack recognizes this hypocrisy in Ann; everyone else (with the exception of Ann’s mother) thinks she’s just as sweet as can be. Jack, you see, knows Ann for who she is, and, perhaps because of that, Ann is out to get him.

And so the stage is set for Shaw’s “treacherous and remorseless” and very funny struggle of wills. As Jack says in act two, “It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can.” Of course Jack doesn’t have a prayer. He doesn’t even know that Ann’s after him until his chauffeur, Henry Straker, clues him in.

There must be an underlying sexual tension to bring this conflict to its fullest, most believable expression. This production lacks that. The leads, Lisa Kaminir and Peter Aylward, have no chemistry between them whatsoever. Their climactic embrace and kiss has all the passion of two strangers bumping into each other in a doorway. Part of the problem is that their characterizations aren’t fully formed. Aylward is pretty much on one level all the way through the evening. This is most noticeable in his voice, which is uniformly loud and seems to be articulated through a mouth full of spit. Kaminir is homogenized in a different manner, not giving much range and play to Ann’s feigned innocence and self-assured guile. Kaminir also undermines her character vocally, with a cruelly unprofessional stab at an English accent. Otherwise, Kaminir and Aylward give competent performances that, if they don’t carry the show, certainly don’t drop and trample it.

Superior performances are given by two members of the Body Politic’s regular ensemble, Joseph Sadowski and Donald Brearley. Sadowski plays Octavius, Ann’s unrequited lover. Octavius is hopelessly conventional, lovesick, and what Ann calls a “nice creature.” Sadowski distinguishes himself early in the play, even in the scene where he just stands there adoring Ann, head tilted to one side, not blinking for minutes on end. Ah, rapture. Brearley plays Straker, the chauffeur and mechanic. This is a great minor role. Straker is Shaw’s symbol of the “new man,” an emerging class of engineers and technicians for which Shaw had so much hope, and, had he lived to see it, would probably now feel so much despair. Brearley handles the part with wiry self-confidence and sarcasm. Both Brearley and Sadowski are admirable proof that character acting is not dead.

But there are other fine performances from the supporting cast. Charles Noel energetically plays an American office-furniture tycoon, earning a round of applause upon his exit. Well deserved. Lisa Keefe and Rebecca Borter (as Ann’s sister and mother, respectively) are excellent ensemble players, counterpointing the other, more flamboyant performances with subtle, well-defined characterizations. The only real clunker in the cast is Randy Steinmeyer, whose role, thankfully, is relatively unimportant and confined to the romantic subplot.

There is only one subplot in Man and Superman, but there are as many levels as you’d care to interpret. This production hits on a number of them: man versus woman (of course), man versus society, woman versus society, the individual versus the life force, and the evolution of man into superman. Shaw’s crammed a lot into this play, and he didn’t just stumble on the battle of the sexes as the appropriate vehicle. All conflicts and themes converge upon a common intersection — marriage. Marriage is the common denominator of society, the cradle of evolution, and an acid test of the individual. Shaw has a lot to say on the subject.

Say it he will, mostly through Jack’s several long, wonderfully written monologues. I credit Pauline Brailsford’s direction for making these monologues painless, for emphasizing their wit and controversy, and for choreographing them with the sometimes casual, sometimes restless action that brings them to life. It’s no simple matter to bring Man and Superman in under three hours, even when you excise act three (the “Don Juan in Hell” interlude). I felt a serious lag just once, toward the end of act one, when Ann and Jack are left alone without the help of the supporting cast. Brailsford’s been faithful to Shaw’s play, just as Shaw was faithful to his own peculiar vision of the human dilemma. And so the play is presented intact and unmuddled, a rare opportunity.

Victorian England is mostly behind us now. Yet, 80 years after its premiere, Man and Superman is still bold and provocative enough to give you a certain perspective. That is, the play stands out in time, eloquently, inviting you to measure your own time against it. I like that. I like theater that respects me enough to allow me to make up my own mind.