Through October 5
MAN AND SUPERMAN with Don Juan in Hell Festival Theatre/Shaw Festival
By Augustine Warner
George Bernard Shaw loved words, small words, giant words, an endless flow of words, flowing like a great river to meet his goals of spreading a gospel of his values.
Probably nowhere is that flow of words more obvious than in his “Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell.”
That’s actually two related but separate plays, sometimes done together.
More often, “Don Juan in Hell” stays on the library shelf because of its complexity and demands on performers, while a cast does “Man and Superman.”
The Shaw Festival does this entire dramatic complex only occasionally because it requires such enormous resources in staging and requires enormous resources from the audience.
The day I saw the show, it started at 11 a.m., broke for lunch and ran to dinnertime.
That’s not the longest, but it has been decades since the Shaw has done “Back to Methuselah,” which requires an afternoon and an evening.
Here, it’s a demonstration of the memory capabilities of some actors, this time, Gray Powell as Jack Tanner in the main “Man and Superman” and Powell as Don Juan Tenorio in “Don Juan in Hell.”
Shaw made his writing reputation as a stage, music and opera critic before turning to playwrighting.
If you have ever seen Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” you will recognize the story, the evil lecher sent to Hell for his treatment of women, including Doña Ana de Ulloa, another of his lecherous targets.
Don Juan murdered her father.
That’s the Commendatore, the giant white statue who eventually welcomes Don Juan to Hell.
“Man” revolves around upper crust people, a gang of brigands and the surface rigid values of the Victorian age, in a time when everything has changed in the years since the queen-empress died.
While the rich leftist Jack Tanner is the lead character, the central figure is Ann Whitefield (Sara Topham), daughter of a rich guy with 19th Century values.
Her father’s will leaves Whitefield in the control of Tanner and the elderly and old values of Roebuck Ramsden (David Adams) who doesn’t like Tanner.
That feeling is reciprocated.
Ann wants to marry Tanner while Octavius “Tavvy” Robinson (Kyle Blair) wants to marry her.
The tangled situation twists endlessly in Camellia Koo’s design, a vast library seemingly larger than a couple of our local branch libraries.
There’s also the issue of the future of Ann’s sister Violet (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), who is very mysterious about what’s going on with her.
To settle many of the issues, the crowd gets in their motorcars and head into Europe, with Tanner driven by Henry Straker (Sanjay Talwar) who has great philosophical values and skill in maintaining cars, a vehicle prone to failure back then.
They wind up in custody of the brigands, deep in the Pyrenees.
The night in the mountains slowly turns into the depths of hell, as the newly dead Doña Ana de Ulloa (Topham) arrives and can’t figure out why a good daughter of the church is in Hell.
Don Juan (Powell) explains it’s a much better place to be than in boring Heaven.
Doña Ana suddenly realizes this is the man who killed her father in a duel over her fate.
She can’t understand why her murdered father would rather spend time in Hell with Don Juan than in Heaven, a place her father considers boring.
The Devil (Martha Burns) comes over to discuss his role in the lower depths.
The words roll on, of the great philosophical issues, life and the life force.
There’s also the music of Mozart from “Don Giovanni,” some of his greatest.
Basically, you must just sit back and listen and marvel at the work of Powell, Topham, Burns and Adams’ Statue.
Only when we turn to the modern world do we see how it all works out, who winds up with the various idle rich young people working out their romantic attachments and people discovering what Violet has been up to with Hector Malone (Jeff Irving) and what his rich father (Tom McCamus) might do in retaliation.
It’s all worth seeing, so long as you are rested and ready and your ear and brain are ready for the flow of words to match Niagara Falls, just up the road.
In many ways, “Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell” is a better look at Shaw than many of his other plays.
Of course, you can also delve into the long essays Shaw wrote to explain what he has put on stage.
You might need them.
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