BWW Reviews: Washington Stage Guild's Captivating BACK TO METHUSELAH
Few playwrights excite me as much as George Bernard Shaw and few events in the theatre capture my attention as much as the opportunity to see one of his lesser-known works produced. Washington Stage Guild is matching that criterion with a captivating production of parts three and four of his Back to Methuselah series. The production prudently balances the science fiction nature of Shaw's work with the greater philosophical discussions his plays' raise regarding the consistent need for humanity to keep developing.
Entitled The Thing Happens, Act One presents part three of the series and is set in the year 2170 A.D. This is a time in Britain when political officials serve as mere figureheads and the "real" governing is doled out to foreign contractors, in this case Confucius (Jacob Yeh). During this period a startling discovery is made that society contains several people who are centuries old. The President (Conrad Feininger), Confucius, Archbishop of York (Brit Herring), Accountant General (Michael Avolio) and Domestic Minister (Lynn Steinmetz) are forced to figure out what it means for their civilization where some citizens will live centuries longer than others.
Act Two, or part four of the series, is entitled The Tragedy of An Elderly Gentleman, advances to the year of 3000 A.D. where we find an Elderly Gentleman (Vincent Clark) wondering aimlessly around Galway Bay. He's apprehended by a series of nurses because as a short-lived person, meaning one who will die at an ordinary age, he's not allowed to be alone without a long-lived person to accompany his travels. It is revealed that his fellow short-lived travelers include his son-in-law the British Prime Minister, known as the Envoy (Brit Herring), the Envoy's Wife (Lynn Steinmetz) and Son (Michael Avolio), and the General of Turania (Conrad Feininger) who is a Ghangis Kahn-like character. Together, they're accompanied by the nurse Zoo (Stephanie Schmalzle) to ask the 170-year old oracle (Laura Giannarelli) for sage advice on military glory and electoral power.
There's no doubt that the plot is complicated and with each part approaching their one-hundredth anniversary in a few years, Shaw's image of the future is fascinating. Once you move beyond the futuristic setting, you'll notice Shaw's brilliance. Both parts contain commentary on politics, society and the need for humanity's continued development - all of which have a contemporary relevance.
The ensemble does an excellent job presenting these arguments. In The Thing Happens it is Yeh, as very composed Confucius, and Feininger, as a somewhat philandering President Burge-Lubin, and Avolio, as a blustery Accountant General, who explore what the discovery of these long-lived persons actually mean for the survival of society. It's a fascinating situation and it will leave you pondering their conundrum.
Director Bill Largess has done a remarkable job paying homage to the complexities in the play's setting while ensuring that the production's finer points do not go unnoticed. That's not an easy task, since Shaw's script becomes longwinded, especially in establishing the plot for The Tragedy of An Elderly Gentleman.
Nevertheless, Clark and Schmalzle intelligently exhibit the evolution between the two societies with Act Two's opening where they're speaking English and yet only partially able to comprehend each other. The differences between the two people reach their climax when the action moves to the Oracle, played with great meaning and poise by Giannarelli.
Shirong Gu's setting gives an imaginative presentation of the future. His Presidential Palace set in The Thing Happens blends an old-world touch complete with futuristic advances including a fish tank with a floating brain. For The Tragedy of An Elderly Gentleman, Gu presents a subdued set for Galway Bay. In contrast his design for the temple of the Oracle has us envisioning one of Europe's grandest cathedrals.
Many of the technological items Shaw mentions in his script aren't that far-fetch, such as a telephone system that allows us to see the other person. Today we may think of it as Facetime or Skype, for Shaw it was a vision for the future.
The only production element which seemed wanting was Debbie Kennedy's costume designs. It's hard to imagine the short-lived people in 3000 A.D. looking like Midwestern American tourists and it took away from Act Two's credibility.
This production is the second in an admirable three year project for Washington Stage Guild to produce the entire Methuselah series. Even if you missed parts one and two last year, there's a brief video montage at the beginning of Act One. Shaw wrote fifty-five plays. This production marks the thirtieth Shaw play produced by Washington Stage Guide and it's an impressive accomplishment.
Watching The Thing Happens and The Tragedy of An Elderly Gentleman, you can't help but marvel at Shaw's work. Yes, both plays could be shortened and his points sharpened. It's still fascinating to see his vision of the future as we approach that future and the contemporary questions he raises.
Runtime: Two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.
Photo: Jacob Yeh, Conrad Feininger, and Michael Avolio in Back to Methuselah. Credit: C. Stanley Photography.
Washington Stage Guild's Back to Methuselah plays thru March 15th at The Undercroft Theatre, 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets please call (240) 582-0050 or click here.