BWW Review: Theatre UCF's Entertaining MAN AND SUPERMAN Miss Shavian Mark
For many modern audiences, George Bernard Shaw is the guy who wrote the play that MY FAIR LADY is based on, or the guy whom John F. Kennedy misquoted in 1963, but as director Lani Harris points out in the program for Theatre UCF's production of MAN AND SUPERMAN, running through November 22nd, Shaw was a theatre critic turned playwright, who used his public acclaim to stir the political pot of late 1800s-early 1900s England. A committed socialist, Shaw imbued his plays with social commentaries that range from progressive to offensive by today's standards. Despite the playwright's intentions, Harris' production of this classic comedy of manners is well-performed by an excellent all-student cast, but never seems to settle on anything specific to say, admirable efforts notwithstanding.
As is often the case with humor-focused productions of the show, gone is Shaw's promotion of eugenics and his bizarre allegorical "Don Juan in Hell" third act. However, Harris does attempt to add a new layer of discussion to the play by peppering the pre-show and intermission with suffragette music, projections, and handouts; all of which are extremely effective, especially the projections by Chris McKinney.
As outlined in Harris' director's note, the idea is meant to provide a foundation for a more independently minded heroine in Ann Whitefield, played by the luminous Maddie Tarbox. However, since the idea is not central to Shaw's text, it never finds a foothold in the play itself, and Tarbox is forced to play the subtext far too subtly to have any impact. While turning the play's central conceit of the Victorian Era's systematic subjugation of women on its ear is commendable, it needs to be more thoroughly woven into the storytelling to truly bring a fresh perspective to the century-old play.
As MAN AND SUPERMAN opens, we learn that in Ann's father's will, he has named trusted friend "Granny" Roebuck Ramsden (Eric Eichenlaub) and young revolutionary Jack Tanner (John Michael McDonald) as his (adult) daughter's guardians. Despite the fact that Ramsden wants the responsibility and Tanner does not, Ann does what she does best and manipulates the situation so that both men agree to cooperate in the role. Ann plays the pair off of each other, and strings along her childhood friend, and not so secret admirer, Octavius Robinson (Tony Pracek) to get her way.
Tarbox's Ann is a master puppeteer, subtly making everyone in her life do exactly what she wants by making them think that it was their idea in the first place. Despite her Machiavellian ways, Tarbox keeps Ann a sympathetic protagonist. With a playful look here, and a flirting comment there, it is easy to see why it is so hard to so "no" to her. Much of Tarbox's best work is done through her fantastic facials; in fact, Harris does a superb job of often positioning Ann so that her most revelatory moments happen with her facing the audience, and the rest of the on-stage cast at her back.
As we see more of Ann's interactions with Jack, it becomes clear that she has ulterior motives in wanting him to serve as her guardian, but the two are so different, sparks fly almost immediately, and not necessarily in the way that she would like. Ann, perhaps as women were forced to do in the era, never directly speaks her mind, instead, she uses her cunning to get her point across, while Jack prides himself on being honest and forthright. Ann's ability to manipulate situations relies on the assumption that others will take the conventional path while she does not; however, Jack's entire worldview is to upset convention, leading to quite a compelling coupling.
McDonald provides a worthy adversary for Tarbox's Ann. He is passionate, intelligent, and charismatic. As "Granny" Ramsden, Eichenlaub is the show's "elder statesman," the more cautious and conservative voice of reason, no matter how progressive he claims to be. Eichenlaub is very funny, but never allows the role's humor to detract from its authenticity.
The rest of the show's ensemble is filled with fantastic individual performances, some of which include brilliant comedic moments. As Violet, Octavius' younger sister, Skye Coyne is practically perfect, and gives the show a much-needed dose of vigor. The second act has a more farcical feel as Joseph Herr and Tyler Houck play Hector Malone Jr. and Sr. respectively. The Irish-American father and son comically spar over the younger Malone's ability to make his own decisions. And, though his part adds very little to the plot itself, Alexandrew Recore's auto-mechanic Henry Straker brings most of the show's laugh-out-loud moments.
While much of the show's original Shavian commentary is missing, and most of the attempts at a more modern sensibility fall flat, MAN AND SUPERMAN's cast of talented graduate and undergraduate performers provides an entertaining and compelling evening of classic theatre. To purchase tickets visit Theatre UCF's website or call 407-823-1500.
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Banner Image Credit: Alexandra Foltin, Maddie Tarbox, and Eric Eichenlaub in MAN AND SUPERMAN: Tony Firriolo | Theatre UCF