Sunday, May 10, 2009

We Need More Shaw in our Lives

(reflection after seeing ARMS AND THE MAN by Polk Street Players Theatre Company in the basement of St. James, Marietta.)

For twenty years, I spent some of each summer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, seeing lots of Shakespeare, and, once in awhile, Shaw. I always left feeling that the Shaw was the best of the plays. I remember especially seeing MISALLIANCE with student Josh Cox, who turned to me at intermission and said, "This is amazing. I want to write down every single line!"

I feel the same way. I laugh, and I follow the logic of each person's arguments, and I'm inclined to agree with every speaker -- even when they argue outrageous things.

We should have more of that. Maybe we could have a Shavian talk radio program?

Shaw had admired Ibsen for addressing social problems in plays. But Shaw's early efforts failed to make much impression. The only one I know by name is MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION, about a madame.

Shaw decided, with ARMS AND THE MAN, that he could more effectively break down audience conservatism by writing comedy.

Seeing ARMS AND THE MAN again, I'm reminded how refreshing Shaw is. There's a plot, its elements all taken from popular theatre of his day. An enemy soldier on the run hides briefly in a girl's bedroom. She saves him from the soldiers pursuing him, and she feeds him chocolate. Months later, when her father the General and her fiance the Captain return, her help for this enemy soldier comes back to embarrass her. That's the plot.

The fun is how Shaw sets up every character one way, and then lets them be undercut. The heroic captain? Actually, he was terrified when his horse ran ahead into danger. The virtuous daughter? Actually, just about everything she says that she believes is a lie, and she gradually recognizes this. The war itself? A farce.

The audience was a bit timid about laughing. But Shaw got laughs with sure - fire Bulgarian jokes. The social - climbing mother brags how she now washes her hands once a day. The General speaks in hushed tones about something their house has that no other Bulgarian house has -- a library. Later, the mother boasts how their family's wealth is nearly historical, going back twenty years.

These are lovable, laughable characters who -- as is commonplace to say -- all talk like Shaw.

Contrast to an opera I walked out of, LA CENARENTULA (sp?) or Cinderella, by Rossini. The prince meets the girl of the cinders about ten minutes into the opera and they fall in love. So far, I was charmed. But the librettist kept inserting unfunny, unnecessary, and tedious complications to keep the thing going. It's the first time that I haven't enjoyed a Met Opera HD broadcast, and the fault was mostly Rossini's. He was just killing time with that one.

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