THE BASICS: MAN AND SUPERMAN (including the usually omitted 2-hour DON JUAN IN HELL) by G.B.Shaw, directed by Kimberley Rampersad, is at the Shaw Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON in repertory on select Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays (one Friday performance left) through October 5, (905-468-2172 / 1-800-511-7429) www.shawfest.com Note: All performances, regardless of the day, begin promptly at 11am and end at approximately 5:30pm with a runtime of 6-1/2 hours, including two intermissions and one lunch break which begins around 1:00 p.m. Here’s the breakdown:
Act I 75 minutes
Break 15 minutes
Act II 30 minutes
Lunch 75 minutes
Act III 120 minutes
Break 15 minutes
Act IV 60 minutes
Total 6-1/2 hours
Several lunch time meal packages can be pre-ordered along with the usual full-service bar, gourmet ice cream, and the charming café with sandwiches, salads, coffee and pastries. At the lunch break you can eat in town, or you have choices on the grounds. You can pre-order a catered meal to enjoy under a tent, you can order from that lobby café when you arrive and have it ready, or you can enjoy your own picnic, all on the grounds of the Festival Theatre.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: There are (at least) two G.B. Shaws. There’s Shaw the clever playwright who sets up mild conflicts between social orders as Shaw pokes fun at the peculiar habits of the English upper class. And there’s great amusement in the tension between men and women, especially between men and women who are romantically involved. Shavian women are bright, self-confident, and are usually slightly intellectually superior to their male counterparts and audiences love the banter.
MAN AND SUPERMAN is that type of romantic comedy where the man, in this case Jack Tanner (Gray Powell), the upper class “bad boy” who writes revolutionary tracts and boasts that he will never marry, is in deep denial of his attraction to Ann Whitefield (Sara Topham), who, on the other hand, is very much aware of her attraction to Jack. Jack’s friend Octavius or “Tavi” (Kyle Blair) is head over heels for Ann, and so she must adroitly put Tavi off while bringing Jack along. Various friends and relations and one hilarious chauffeur (Sanjay Talwar) round out the cast of thirteen very talented actors.
DON JUAN IN HELL on the other hand is by “the other” G.B. Shaw and is a four-person stand-alone two-hour intense philosophical debate between Jack (now in the role of Don Juan) and the Devil (Martha Burns) punctuated with commentary by The Statue (David Adams) and his daughter Dona Aña (Sara Topham).
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The heavy lifting is done by actor Gray Powell in the role of Jack, because Shaw has made him his voice. Shaw, the auto-didact and polymath, as the playwright, through Jack, expounds on all manner of things philosophical, ethical, not to mention information vegetable, animal, and mineral. In short, Jack speaks as fast as the Major General sings in G&S’s 1879 operetta THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. It is great fun, and if The Shaw Festival had just mounted the three acts of MAN AND SUPERMAN I’m sure that everyone would have left the theater after a satisfying 3-1/4 hours feeling quite fulfilled.
But if you’ve been following the tenure of Shaw’s Artistic Director Tim Carroll (T.C.), you know by now that sending us home fulfilled and satisfied and no doubt conversing about where to go to dinner is NOT what he’s all about. Certainly, this season Carroll has several of those “traditional feel-good” offerings, including the operetta BRIGADOON, along with the comedies THE LADYKILLERS, and Shaw’s GETTING MARRIED. And, if we only saw MAN AND SUPERMAN, it would fit that list perfectly. But then, we wouldn’t need T.C. in charge.
So, in a bold move, The Shawfest has included the stand-alone, and often excerpted two-hour word-fest DON JUAN IN HELL. And this is Shaw the polemicist, the man of encyclopedic knowledge with the argumentative skills of the wiliest lawyer. Think of that professor we all had in college with whom one could verbally spar but never best. Played also by Gray Powell, Jack Tanner as Don Juan, no longer content to argue with mere mortals, in search of a worthy debate partner is now challenging the Devil himself.
It’s a two-hour tour-de-force, to be sure, but, while devilishly clever, it does require a great amount of mental stamina, of course for the actors, but also for the audience. (At the end of each show, the actors on stage applaud the audience as if to say: “Thanks for hanging in there.”) This is not just two more hours of snappy dialog. It’s two hours of intense philosophical debate. And right after lunch, too!
So, MAN AND SUPERMAN is a lot of fun and would be perfect for Niagara-on-the-Lake on its own. And DON JUAN IN HELL is, to use the overused word “amazing.” But these two plays are just too much when put on together. Often before the children’s shows (these days they are going through theatrical adaptations of the seven “Narnia” books) the Shawfest has activities to get the kids ready for what they’re about to see. I think I might have enjoyed that here. Perhaps 45 minutes of activities to get us intellectually ready for DON JUAN IN HELL, then a 15-minute bathroom break, and then the two-hour play. And then that’s it. We’d be done.
Having said all that, there is a 15-minute break after HELL before the final act, which is superbly done, and I felt sorry for the few people who left early. Don’t do that. Yes, the final act is a little under an hour, but it zips along and why would you skip dessert?
Note: Don’t be confused by the opening dialog between “Tavi” and Ann’s guardian, which is sung in the style of “recitative” to the accompaniment of a harpsichord (original music by Joseph Tritt.) This is simply a witty nod to Mozart’s opera DON GIOVANNI whose characters (Don Giovanni or Don Juan, Doña Ana, and The Statue (a.k.a. The Stone Guest, the Commendatore, who was Doña Ana’s father) will appear later on. The Mozart homage only lasts a few minutes but it’s an ingenious way to presage Act III, which, according to Shaw himself, was like “a grand opera in the middle of a musical comedy” (which is the title of an article worth reading in the “programme” by Leonard Conolly).
Speaking of said “programme” (playbill) you can always download the entire booklet for each and every Shawfest offering by visiting www.shawfest.com and clicking on the poster for that play or musical. To get your money’s worth I would strongly urge you to invest some time perusing that material before this theatrical marathon.
Lead image: MAN AND SUPERMAN Sara Topham and Gray Powell credit Emily Cooper
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
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!