BWW Reviews: Washington Stage Guild Tackles Shaw's Epic BACK TO METHUSELAH
Given its long history of producing the plays of George Bernard Shaw, it was inevitable that the Washington Stage Guild would someday attempt to mount Shaw's monumental, impossible play cycle, Back to Methuselah. Methuselah tilts at the usual ideological windmills, with a fanciful dash of science fiction thrown in for good measure. Perhaps because of its reach, the script shows occasional signs of strain; but the Stage Guild does an admirable job bringing our dear Irish curmudgeon's epic to life.
Wisely, the company has decided to offer Methuselah in reasonable, evening-sized chunks; so for now we are being treated to two pieces, "In the Beginning" and "The Gospel of the Family Barnabas," with the remaining episodes spaced out over the next two seasons. The first chapter, "Beginning," is a brilliant treatment of the Bible's First Family and resonates with some of Shaw's deepest reflections on the fragility of life, love, and our alternating desire for and horror of immortality. Brit Herring serves well as Adam, portrayed here as an amiable guy even if a bit naïve or suggestible. As his equally clueless wife Eve, Lynn Steinmetz is the one who takes the audience on a journey of discovery which, as comical as it seems at first, ultimately takes us into territory we hardly dreamt of. Her progressive realization that the Garden of Eden is something of a dead end, and her curiosity about a way out, gets the whole story of humanity rolling. Naturally, in this first scene the Serpent is the star: Laura Giannarelli is luminously seductive, using her voice like a Stradivarius to lure Adam and Eve out of the only life they have ever known.
In the second scene, some years later, Shaw again proves a master at balancing the conflict of ideals and the practical struggles of early mankind, which are only hinted at in Genesis. We see Adam and Eve eking out a living in the wake of the murder of their son Abel. The murderer, their son Cain, is played with gusto by Conrad Feininger, who advocates in true Shavian fashion (if somewhat ironically) for the benefits of man's darker side. It is here, too, that Steinmetz's Eve emerges as a forceful presence in both of her men's lives.
Given such a strong start to the evening, it is unfortunate that with "The Gospel of the Family Barnabas," Shaw indulges at length in political payback instead of playwriting. Shaw wrote "Methuselah" in the aftermath of World War I, a war he openly protested, and he faced fierce denunciations as well as a ban on productions of his plays as a result. It only gradually dawned on authorities and audiences alike that he might have been right; but instead of letting bygones be bygones Shaw insists on using "Barnabas" as yet another barb aimed directly at Britain's two wartime Prime Ministers, Herbert Henry Aisquith and David Lloyd George. Even if we grant that these two politicians deserved a good thrashing, it is frankly a distraction to have their political dirty laundry aired out on-stage, at length, with hardly any effort to mask its dubious dramaturgical merits. It bends "Barnabas" out of shape, and the fascinating parallels between the temptations of the biblical Serpent and those of the Barnabies get lost.
This is a shame, because the siblings Barnabas offer us a charming, winning couple whose seductive, disturbing ideals might only hit you halfway home after the show. Their conceit is that by allowing humanity to live to 300 years, we can ensure that mankind will be ruled by only the truly older and wiser among us. The team behind this grand scheme is quite convincing: Laura Giannarelli shines once again as Frances Barnabas-the double-casting is hardly coincidental-but here we get to see a less seductive character whose appeal is more down-to-earth. Giannarelli's performance, overall, should be the real reason for coming to see the show. Meanwhile as her brother, the scientist Conrad Barnabas, Michael Avolio is charismatic to a fault, and you can almost start to believe that his plan might really solve all of humanity's problems.
Eager to capitalize on this latest scientific theory are the political hacks Joyce Burge and Lubin, both of them fierce rivals. Conrad Feininger appears again as Burge (the stand-in for Aisquith), and as important as bombast may have been for his role as Cain, when he takes on Burge I can't help thinking that this politician might benefit from a more moderate tone of voice. Vincent Clark, on the other hand, plays Lubin (Lloyd George) as a perfect sleazeball who lights up to hilarious effect, when he contemplates the prospect of being Prime Minister for another 200 years. As supporting players in "Barnabas" Brit Herring does a nice turn as Reverend Haslam-who, in Shaw's hands, is entirely too broad-minded for an actual prelate-and the young niece Cynthia Barnabas is charmingly played by Nora Palka.
Largess is, admittedly, dealing with challenging material; Shaw isn't the sort to give you much to do on-stage other than talk, and with "Barnaby" especially the characters are often reduced to the stand (or sit) and deliver sort of performance. But sometimes, simplicity can bring out the best aspects of Shaw's work-the ideas. Shiron Gu's settings are spare and do the neat trick of surviving the transition between the Garden of Eden and 20th century England.
This production is a must-see for Shaw fans, all the more special because it is likely to be the only full production we'll see in our lifetime. Even devotees, however, might have a quibble with having to see the script in its entirety. I mention this because Shaw once took on Shakespeare (that country bumpkin just to his left on the bookshelf), and saw fit to rewrite the Bard's material when he found it too flabby or improbable-his alternative ending for Cymbeline being a case-in-point. Perhaps Shaw himself deserves the Shavian treatment here; some brutal (not discreet, brutal) cuts to "Barnabas" seem to be in order.
Performances of Back to Methuselah, Part 1 are at the Undercroft Theatre, in the basement of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachussetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. For tickets and directions call 240-582-0050, or visit the Washington Stage Guild website:
Photo by C. Stanley Photography.