BWW Review: Shaw's THE MAN OF DESTINY Delights at the Archive Theatre
The Archive Theatre is making quite a name for itself. Delivering on a mission to "breathe new life into Classical Theatre and Literature of the 16th through 20th centuries, their most recent production of THE MAN OF DESTINY is an intimate, but no less meticulously produced piece of theatre than their CYRANO DE BERGERAC. According to their mission, the Archive Theatre provides us with "exquisitely detailed, extensively researched, and historically informed productions that provide visual context and understanding for the stories we tell" These works, it should be said, are produced with care and commitment, in an immersive environment.
Quickly taking a solid place among the Austin theatre community after their inaugural production of CYRANO DE BERGERAC, Archive Theatre brings us another classic with George Bernard Shaw's THE MAN OF DESTINY. For this show, Archive has partnered with Pioneer Farms, and the show is set in Wessels Hall, a dance hall built around 1900 near LaGrange and moved to Pioneer Farms. It's a lovely venue, the setting is complemented by tavern games and on the afternoon we were there, delicious french pastries and wine were served.
Jennifer Davis, backed by live musicians, serenades us beautifully before the show begins and we're submersed in this slice of Napoleon's life for an hour and a half. Shaw's story, written in 1897, is set in France during the early part of Napoleon's career. After his victory at the battle of Lodi in May of 1796, we find Napoleon (Michael Rodriguez) at an inn in Italy, his day consumed with writing letters to his wife and visiting with the innkeeper Giuseppe (Stephen Cook). When a Lieutenant (Ryan Blakey) arrives we learn he's failed at getting some dispatches to Napoleon thanks to another soldier who conned him out of them. Some time later, a mysterious lady (Maggie Thompson) arrives with news of what is in the letters the fumbling Lieutenant lost, and the plot thickens as she and Napoleon trade wits and barbs.
There are delightful moments in this production, and the cast tackles Shaw's sometimes pyrotechnical dialogue with aplomb - particularly, Rodriguez who provides an intense Napoleon, rife with ambition and intellect. Thompson's mysterious lady is a sly complement to Rodriguez's Napoleon, and there are moments of crackling chemistry between them. Blakey is a clown of a Lieutenant and Cook gives us a steady Giuseppe. In this production, we have a few scenes added for pure fun, involving servants Luca (John Michael Hoke) and Maria (Svetlana Koutseridi).
The production does have a few rough edges, however. Wessels Hall is essentially staged as a profile theatre for this show. It maximizes the immersion we get in this production (I reluctantly accepted a mostly eaten apple directly from Hoke without even leaving my seat in one of the delightful added scenes) but this creates a challenge from time to time for the actors to be heard. Also, on the evening I attended, there was a lack of restraint among some of the performers. It's often hard to tell if this style is purely at the behest of the director, or if we've got a runaway ham in our cast. For this reviewer, who is guilty of hamming it up herself, such a choice means sacrificing the story for humor, when both are possible.
These are by no means reasons to skip this lovingly and meticulously produced show. Despite some overenthusiasm, every cast member is talented, engaging, and committed, and directors Jennifer Davis and Garrison Martt have ensured that a lively pace and staging keep us engaged.
The Archive Theatre is filling an important niche in the Austin theatre community, and THE MAN OF DESTINY, as it's second offering to us, proves this theatre company is taking a lead on delivering Austin with some top notch classics.
The Man of Destiny
The Archive Theater Company
Directed by Garrison Mart and Jennifer Rose Davis
10621 Pioneer Farms Dr
Austin, TX, 78754
February 07 through March 01, 2020
Tickets available here
Photo credit: Steve Rogers