Make art, not war

By the

March 22, 2001

On the side of the building across the street is a sign that reads: “NOW! It is time to come to church and to God.” Across the Street from this publicly proselytizing parish is Paradise Liquors. A few blocks down 14th St. is a mission. The only establishment missing from the intersection is an explosives factory. It seems, however, that the current offerings at The Studio Theatre clearly aspire to fulfill the missing requirement.

The Washington Stage Guild’s current production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara may not generate sufficient energy to ignite an explosion (and if the scant audience turn-out at a recent Saturday matinee was any indication, it may not generate sufficient revenue to pay rent at The Studio Theatre), but it is a solid performance. Handled intelligently, if a tad unevenly, by director John MacDonald and his troupe of actors, Major Barbara is no indicator of a theatrical renaissance in Washington, but it is confirmation that quality productions are paramount.

Shaw’s three-act treatise on salvation and social responsibility is as aptly suited for the Washington stage today as it must have been for turn-of-the-century London. But the Guild’s spin on the script is only superficially reminiscent of its historical setting. The charactors are tastefully clad in period costumes and the bare set pieces create an atmosphere of simplicity that is sharply contrasted with the intricacies of the political dialogue tossed almost recklessly about during the course of the play.

Parlor-room dialogue is volleyed back and forth in proper ping-pong style for the duration of Act I, leaving heads spinning as the cast changes both their costumes and characters. MacDonald’s decision to double and triple-cast some of the smaller roles in Major Barbara imbues the three near-distinct acts with an eerie sense of intertextual correspondence beyond that afforded by the reappearance of central characters. Indeed, the main characters are less interesting than their chameleon counterparts. Michael Glenn’s portrayal of the bumbling, circumlocutory Charlie “Cholly” Lomax in Acts I and III is made more complex by his appearance in Act II as the incorrigible Bill Walker. So too, is Vincent Clark’s trio of minor mercenaries (Morrison the butler, Peter Shirley and Bilton).

The movement from Lady Britomart’s home to the Salvation Army in Act II is brought by swapping the plush sitting-room chairs for rickety wooden accoutrements of the Army’s mission, and it is a welcomed change. Lynn Steinmetz, as the impeccably proper Lady Britomart, is an absolute riot as she expounds at will upon every subject that pops into her head. But Steven Carpenter, who plays her son Stephen, is far less so. Carpenter seems excessively uncomfortable in his role (which does necessitate a degree of discomposure, but is taken to an extreme by Carpenter), almost as if he is afraid of the fearful Stephen. Carpenter looks like he should be having significantly more fun with the role than he does, a problem that is only compounded by Steinmetz’s refusal to relinquish her control of the stage.

But Steinmetz’s oral acrobatics and multitude of facial expressions are so buoyantly entertaining that you can’t help but think just how happy a dilemma that is. Carpenter gets a reprieve from the problematic Stephen in Act II, where he hams his way through the role of the reprobate Snobby Price.

As Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins, Brian McMonagle traverses the gamut of self-assurance, beginning the play with a veneer of coolly academic righteousness (he is a professor of Greek) and ultimately tumbling into a Shavian pit of cold, uncertain pragmatism. Morgan Duncan’s intelligent portrayal of Andrew Undershaft is similarly nuanced, but the break with traditional casting paints an additional layer of intricacy over the character of the “Prince of Darkness.” The casting of the sole minority actor as the purveyor of death and destruction (Undershaft is the explosives factory owner), and even more importantly, unashamed honesty, is both a prominent and highly problematic choice. But Duncan executes his role with such aplomb that MacDonald’s dive into the realm of anti-political correctness seems almost immaterial.?

In the title role, Tricia McCauley is bubbly but ever so slightly boring. In an odd twist of logic, Major Barbara becomes everyone else’s but Barbara’s story, and this textual relegation to the background is echoed in McCauley’s performance. Her portrayal of the do-gooding Major is half-hearted, and there simply isn’t any chance of saving her.

If nothing else, anti-hero Andrew Undershaft’s sentiments on governance should raise a local elected eyebrow or two: “Vote! Bah! When you vote, you only change the names of the cabinet … Your pious mob fills up ballot papers and imagines it is governing its masters; but the ballot paper that really governs is the paper that has a bullet wrapped up in it.” And with all of Shaw’s jaunts into the realm of political philosophy, particularly with respect to the power of gunpowder, it seems as if the other George in town might just be able to glean an insight or two.

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