Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2006
“Those who talk most about the blessings of marriage and the constancy of its vows are the very people who declare that if the chain were broken and the prisoners left free to choose, the whole social fabric would fly asunder. You cannot have the argument both ways. If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?”
— George Bernard Shaw
While I am not officially reviewing at Oldcastle this season, I did get a chance to attend the opening night performance of Engaging Shaw and feel I would be remiss if I did not follow Shaw’s maxim that “A critic is one who leaves no turn unstoned” and tell you that I enjoyed it very much. In fact the theatre criticism of George Bernard Shaw (he was the drama critic for the Saturday Review from 1895-1898) was some of the very first I read in my early teens, and I realized even then that the fact that I enjoyed reading about long-forgotten opening nights in Edwardian London was a foreshadowing of my future on the aisle.
It is fitting that Oldcastle is mounting Engaging Shaw, the world premiere of a new play by John Morogiello, a few weeks after the Sesquicentennial of Shaw’s birth. The play depicts the stormy and unconventional courtship of the famed writer (played by Mark Leydorf) and Irish heiress Charlotte Payne-Townsend (Katrina Ferguson.) As written and performed it depicts a lively battle of wits between two highly intelligent and eccentric individuals who are as thwarted by their own refusal to bow to the social mores of Victorian England as they are by those mores themselves.
Is it historically accurate? Darned if I know! I am not a Shavian scholar and have not had time to read the many biographies of GBS that I have collected over the years. Morogiello did have to deal with the still very active Shaw estate in order to get permission to write the play, so it can be assumed that they found it of sufficient historical accuracy and merit.
History cannot dispute that Shaw (1856-1950) lived with his mother until he married Charlotte (1857-1943) in 1898, when they were both in their early 40’s. The marriage lasted until Charlotte’s death, and Shaw never remarried. They had no children and it is rumored that Shaw died a virgin, a rumor to which Morogiello obviously gives no credence since in his play the Shaws do have conjugal relations, at least before they are married, although neither is very keen on the subject. I am sure there are many other aspects to Morogiello’s script with which experts would quarrel, so if you are a Shavian expert, you might do well to stay home.
If, however, like me you have a modicum of knowledge about GBS and enjoy a good historical/romantical comedy, Engaging Shaw should please you very much. Like the historic Shaw, Leydorf is tall, slender, and red-headed. He and Ferguson both employ just a hint of an Irish brogue, just enough to remind you of their characters’ roots. I have a feeling the real Shaw, a teetotaling vegetarian socialist, was considerably more annoying and pompous than Morogiello, director Langdon Brown, and Leydorf allow this version of him to be. Here is merely delightfully curmudgeonly and his deeper eccentricities are merely alluded to.
The Charlotte that Morogiello, Brown, and Ferguson have concocted is every bit Shaw’s intellectual equal, and she recognizes immediately that they are an excellent match. Ferguson is a beautiful woman, but not a pretty one, which gives her Charlotte just the right amount of gravitas and believability.
Charlotte was a member of the Fabian Society, which Shaw founded with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, portrayed here nicely by Gwendolyn Lewis and Richard Howe. An interesting montage towards the end of the evening has Howe’s Sidney spouting Fabian rhetoric interspersed with excerpts from Shaw and Charlotte’s correspondence which points up how Shaw literally lived what he espoused politically and sociologically.
A glance at the Shavian quotations in Bartlett’s (yes, I still own a Bartlett’s, in fact I own three different editions) makes Morogiello look like a plagiarist. A close comparison would probably reveal many direct quotes from Shaw’s plays and other writings in the script, and other places where Morogiello has succinctly paraphrased a great line or two. So his Shaw sounds like the Shaw we are used to hearing on stage, but most authors don’t sound like their fictional characters in real life, which is just one of many things that makes me think folks who really know something about Shaw would enjoy this play considerably less than an ignoramus like myself.
In a preview article in the Berkshire Eagle, Morogiello claims that the script initially contained about 13% Shaw, but that that percentage shrunk during the rehearsal process with Brown and the cast, which would make the play on stage at Oldcastle primarily one of Morogiello’s own invention.
Harry Feinger has designed an interestingly mottled backdrop and floor for this production, which he has also nicely lit. This open expanse of nowhere-in-particular suits the afore-mentioned montage sequence, when Charlotte is traveling in Europe and the Webb’s are lecturing in America and Shaw is at home in England suffering from various forms of mental and physical anguish. Shaw was a noted hypochondriac, and in Morogiello’s mind it was clearly his frustrated love for Charlotte that precipitated his various health problems while she was abroad. But most of the scenes in the play do take place somewhere specific and I am not sure a non-realistic set was the best choice over all.
Patty Brundage has done a fine job with the women’s costumes, but I was not fooled by the anachronism of the men’s attire. Men’s suits have changed oh-so-subtly over the past 108 years, and those were not Edwardian suits Leydorf and Howe were wearing.
No one is credited with the sound design, so I assume that Brown selected the pleasant string music that played between and sometimes during the scenes. I am not sure what violins have to do with George Bernard Shaw or his courtship, but they gave the show that feeling of tension that strings always engender.
Morogiello is the playwright in residence at the Maryland State Arts Council and has written about Shaw previously in his comedy Irish Authors Held Hostage. A critic writing about the Washington DC area premiere of that work was so bold as to compare Morogiello’s writing to that of Tom Stoppard. Perhaps in that piece it does reach closer to that level of brilliance, but here in Engaging Shaw it certainly shows dramatic competence and either a thorough knowledge of his subject or the unmitigated gall to make up whatever he wanted Shaw’s romance to be. Either way, it is an entertaining evening of theatre and it made me want to get one of those Shaw biographies off the shelf, to learn more about Charlotte if nothing else.
Engaging Shaw produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through September 3 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. The talk is a little dense for elementary school age children, but high schoolers ought to enjoy it very much. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006