The Playgoer: Shaw Festival Journal II (Bus Stop & Barbara)

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Shaw Festival Journal II (Bus Stop & Barbara)

or, What I Saw at Shaw

Some reviews from playgoing at Niagara-on-the-Lake. More to come--on Journey's End, Autumn Garden, and Something on the Side. For more info on all productions, go to

Bus Stop
Gritty naturalism is not the Shaw Festival’s forte. So that is not the aspect one expects to be emphasized in their presentation of this William Inge chestnut (from 1955, stretching the Shaw timeline just a bit). Instead, director Jackie Maxwell (also the Festival Artistic Director) gives us a fable, which is perhaps even more in keeping with the Inge spirit anyway. The set seems like a nice two-star diner instead of the no-star rest stop I imagine encountering on a blizzard-stricken night on the roads of rural Kansas. The roughness and brutality of the Bo-Cherie relationship is totally played for comedy. Maxwell doesn’t make any clear directorial choice on how to stage the play’s multiple private conversations among the diner-customers without them overhearing each other. (That’s when the “fable” frame is supposed to kick in, I suppose.)

But some of Inge’s poignant more melancholy notes do sound, especially in the performance of Norman Browning as the wayward, quasi-pedophilic professor (a role unsurprisingly cut from the 1956 Marilyn Monroe movie version). Browning is funny and pathetic in just the right degrees, bringing to bear the best of the Shaw tradition (he’s a 20-year veteran of the festival) as this fish out of water in rural Americana. Maxwell also ends the play perfectly, fading out on the loneliness of Peter Krantz’s Virgil, Bo’s gentle giant of a buddy. “Someone always gets left out in the cold” the play leaves us with, a relief for cynics after two hours of golly-gee romantic comedy. But Krantz’s stoic bearing and baritone, mustachioed presence provide something even more—a much needed Jacques amid all the revelry of the young lovers. (We finally feel the presence of Inge the outsider, the one who escaped small town life, the closet homosexual who submitted himself to “curative” therapy). The Shakespearean ambitions for this little comedy of eros finally become clear.

Major Barbara
As you might expect, this warhorse typifies the Festival’s work—short on the emotions and imagination, but very strong on text and clarity. This was not the most stirring, or comical, Major Barbara you’ll ever see, but it was good, clean rhetorical playing. The actors seem to just breeze through those long Shavian diatribes without missing a beat (or a joke, for that matter) as concert pianists running through scales. It’s certainly good listening Shaw, if not always watching. (And, as some might say, what other kind is there.) Diana Donnelly makes for a refreshingly rosy-faced and young Barbara (in contrast to Cherry Jones recently on Broadway); not a mountain of authority, but the priggish energy of the prematurely righteous. The production’s casting was marred, though, by a milquetoast of an Undershaft (a late-season replacement—one of the perils of rep, alas); even this actor was thoroughly competent at this titanic part’s difficulties—we just missed the bulliness and bravado needed for his face-offs with Barbara. Without that spark of personality, the play does indeed become just debate and not theatre.

Seeing this play upon its centenary (yes, it’s a 1905 play) does give occasion for some sobering thoughts, all reinforcing its power, and a testament to the Festival’s careful attention to it. If it seems today too weighted and less witty a play than the Shaw plays we actually like, it’s for good reason. This is a thoroughly depressing, thoroughly cynical piece of work. In Barbara and Cusins, Shaw presents us with two young optimists searching for solutions. By the end their idealism is dashed. Cusins (whose eccentric classicism and outsider non-conformism seem to mirror Shaw’s) has the most pronounced journey. After spending his life so far groping for meaning in the ancients and in the “Salvation” Army, he totally capitulates in the end to Undershaft’s “guns and money” preaching. The “prince of darkness” convinces him he must play ball with the world on its new terms. The war of ideas and beliefs is over, and the contest of sheer brute force has begun. Shaw, through Undershaft, appears shockingly (to today’s ears) comfortable with the idea of selling guns to all—a level playing field for empires and insurgencies alike. I think he means it. Shaw (about to turn 50 at the time of the play) seems to renounce all his previous idealism to prepare for a 20th century he expects will care little for such niceties.

It’s always unsettling to watch someone renounce their ideals, and the dramatic power of Barbara may be in dramatizing that very act—in both its characters and its author. In that vein, director Joseph Ziegler in this production leaves us with a particularly haunting tableau: on the parapet of Undershaft’s munitions factory, the characters all gaze out, off right, into the beyond, some with binoculars, as if peering into the century awaiting them. Cusins, by himself down left, stares with them for a moment, then turns to the pile of black iron materiel at his feet, a harbinger for what we know is to come. Did Shaw know, too?

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