THE BASICS: Paired shorter comedies by Bernard Shaw: HOW HE LIED TO HER HUSBAND and THE MAN OF DESTINY. Philip Akin directs a cast of seven. LIED runs about half and hour, MAN roughly twice that. The two plays, with single intermission, make for a show of about two hours. MARRIAGE plays in repertory at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, through September 2nd.
HOW HE LIED TO HER HUSBAND. Standard issue domestic comedy, with a love triangle very similar to the one already used by Shaw for CANDIDA. GBS actually has his characters discuss CANDIDA in the play! Funny but somewhat egotistical and self-serving, I have to say. The whole thing, a trifle really, hangs on an amusing reversal of our expectations for the Husband, with regard to the “scandalous” relationship between his Wife and her would-be young Lover.
THE MAN OF DESTINY. Historical comedy, a la SAINT JOAN. Shaw conjures a droll incident in Napoleon’s Italian Campaign to give us a puckish portrait of the hungry young Corsican on the rise. At its heart, MAN is a battle of wits between the Emperor-to-be and a Strange Lady—young, beautiful, wily and bewitching—determined to see that a compromising letter from a dear woman friend never reaches his eyes.
These plays are decidedly minor Shaw. It’s easy to see why they are rarely performed. There’s really very little to HOW HE LIED. It was penned not long after MAN OF DESTINY, with the specific idea of pairing them, thus lengthening the running time and convincing audiences that they were getting their money’s worth. The present incarnation features three actors of Indian ancestry. This gives the thing a somewhat unusual patina, but in no way spoils the fun. The creative team has actually gone with the flow, decking out the glamorous Krystal Kirin in a stunning Euro-Indian gown of peacock blue. A piece of forehead jewelry completes the look. Kirin, Shawn Ahmed and David Adams all give bright performances under Mr. Akin’s snappy direction. Adams is particularly delightful as the mercurial but not-quite-what-we-were-expecting Husband.
MAN OF DESTINY really requires some historical context. Sadly, this was not provided in the playbill, usually reliably comprehensive at the Shaw. If you go, you may well want to know beforehand who Director Barras was, and something of the (really quite amazing) story of the young Josephine. Because MAN OF DESTINY is also the story of a non-conventional marriage, presented to us only in bits and pieces. Shaw plays with us by dancing around it. This struck me only afterwards, however, when I was poring over the actual text. Kelly Wong (a typically strange latter-day Shaw Festival casting choice) invests his Bonaparte with a nice, crisp, devil-may-care quality. He’s really pretty good. Fiona Byrne, so lovely in STAGE KISS, is considerably less satisfying as the Strange Lady. A young and bewitching quality is needed to make this teasing battle of the sexes fly. Sadly, we stay earthbound. Martin Happer is badly miscast as Giuseppe, the Italian innkeeper. How do I know? Because Shaw provides a very clear description of him in the long, rambling opening paragraphs that preface all the talk. And what’s with that big Italian accent (the only one being used onstage)? Andrew Laurie as the earnest but low-IQ Lieutenant is high energy, and works hard for laughs, a little too hard for my taste.
Shaw gives us typical rapid-fire observations on subjects like Fear, Heroism, Class Distinction.
Shaw gives us typical rapid-fire observations on subjects like Fear, Heroism, Class Distinction. There’s also one scathing rant on the English Character, quite possibly worth the price of admission.
The production values are of the usual high quality, with a special shout out to Steve Lucas for his beautiful lighting of MAN OF DESTINY. Did I mention the set change? This is not a usual topic for discussion, but the metamorphosis from HOW HE LIED to MAN OF DESTINY is so elegant, so smooth and accomplished, it is actually a highlight of the evening! All of the participating actors were clearly having a lot of fun with it…
IN SUM: Minor Shaw, and I certainly have my quibbles. But if you have never seen them before, and are hungering for some GBS (at the festival that still bears his name, but appears to be marginalizing him more and more every year), why not make the effort?
Lead image: Krystal Kirin and Shawn Ahmed | Photo – Emily Cooper
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!