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It’s no secret that George Bernard Shaw so loved the sound of ideas that he tried to turn 20th-century theater into a debating society. No other playwright—save perhaps Tom Stoppard—has so successfully mastered the art of converting viewpoints into characters. Give the old boy a public controversy, and he peopled it with advocates for positions no one was even considering. Give him an undebatable truth and he’d concoct a controversy of his own. And when nothing whatever occurred to him, as apparently happened with Misalliance, he could construct a perfectly hilarious evening out of odds, ends, and nonsequiturs.
As brightly revived by Arena Stage, Misalliance actually seems at first to have been crafted to debunk criticisms that Shaw wrote debates rather than plays. The show is crammed with incident—engagements broken, affairs unveiled, reputations tarnished, airplanes crashed, and terrorists hidden in Turkish baths—no combination of which could really be said to add up to a plot, but all of which serve to keep the dramatic cauldron bubbling. In the early scenes, there seems to be some question as to the social propriety of a marriage between a tradesman’s daughter and the son of a lord, but that’s not the sort of issue Shaw would ever bother to sink his teeth into for long. Rather, he sets characters to chattering wittily away about mercantilism, free libraries (the tradesman is modeled on Andrew Carnegie), the shrinking of empire, the status of women, republicanism, nobility, mannerly conduct, and social narcissism. The conversation is impudent, engaging, and pretty much nonstop until Shaw announces sometime around the three-hour mark that for the moment he has nothing more to say, and everyone takes a bow.
Kyle Donnelly’s staging is swift, light, and mocking in the way it uses physical acrobatics to enhance the tumble of Shavian language. Her actors swing around poles, leap from banisters, and slide down ropes on Loy Arcenas’ turn-of-some-century setting, where glass-enclosed Edwardian bedrooms and parlors are suspended as dioramas in a white-on-white, postmodern jungle-gym of a mansion. There’s not an inch of the stage opening that Donnelly doesn’t utilize, from the upstage orchard through which terrorists creep and tennis players frolic, to the attic that’s breached at evening’s midpoint by a markedly phallic airplane wing aimed straight at the ingenue.
Richard Bauer plays the underwear manufacturer who owns the mansion as a giddily excitable philosopher who’s hardly able to keep his feet on the ground when an idea (or a woman) animates him. As his earthbound wife, Halo Wines finds a way of suggesting she’s weighed down by a mind crammed with middle-class platitudes. And Pamela Nyberg’s free-thinking circus acrobat suggests precisely the opposite as she grasps her own foot at forehead level, does splits, and hoists JD Cullum’s sniggering aristocrat over her shoulder so she can beat some sense into him through calisthenics.
Ellen Karas plays one of those horrifyingly strong-willed females who are forever chasing apprehensive males—in this case a handsome gentleman-aviator who, as Hank Stratton portrays him, tends to squeak when cornered—through Shaw’s plays. David Marks’ priggish businessman and Henry Strozier’s disillusioned man of the world are more subdued, while TJ Edwards makes a late entrance as a whining Socialist and wreaks havoc with a gun and a photograph of his mother, not necessarily in that order.
They’re all adept at the droll delivery required to put across Shaw’s self-referential jests (“Democracy reads well, but it doesn’t act well, like some people’s plays”) without actively winking at the audience. And if they can’t entirely keep the play’s last act from sagging a bit, they can still make Shaw’s swipes at upper-crust notions of morality riotous—the sequence, for instance, in which an ingenue and her aviator swain are hauled half-dressed before her fiancé and accused of making love in the garden. “Her conduct,” the indignant aviator tells his girlfriend’s fiancé, as he hands her back her skirt, “has been, I need hardly say, in every respect above reproach.”
If thought, not action, is the engine of Shavian plays, I suppose you might say that situation, not drama, is the engine of much of the rest of contemporary theater. A case in point is the intriguing work John Strand has crafted from a true story about an African pygmy who was brought to this country for exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and was later “leased” to the Bronx Zoo where he was displayed in a cage for two weeks before being rescued by indignant civil rights activists.
Otabenga, currently receiving its world premiere at Signature Theater in a handsome, briskly efficient production directed by the Shakespeare Theater’s Michael Kahn, is a fictionalized account of the relationship between its African title character and the American scientist/explorer Samuel Philips Verner, who befriended him in Africa and then exploited that friendship in the U.S.
The evening begins with Verner (Wallace Acton), attired in a soiled white-linen suit, eloquently recount ing a ferocious wild game hunt that culminates in “the victim’s final shudder…the sigh of acceptance.” Having captured the audience’s attention with this riveting description, however, the explorer cocks his head slightly and says, “Actually, I made that up,” at once making himself both more interesting and less trustworthy than before.
That’s not a bad paradigm for what playwright Strand does in subsequent scenes as he paints a portrait of the relationship between his leading characters and carefully balances his portrayal of their respective societies. Ultimately he’s working toward an understanding of cultural relativism that might reasonably be called profound: Verner speaks of “the Africa we invent so that we can believe in the America we invented too.” But while Strand’s phrasing is invariably compelling, he keeps stepping back from his story to call attention to the storytelling, and the audience slowly learns to take what it’s hearing with a grain of salt.
I suspect the problem lies in the fact that the story is more chronicle than drama, despite the author’s attempts to explain motives and flesh out characters. Of the minor figures, only one—a supremely skeptical African chief played by Doug Brown—makes much of an independent impression. The other supporting characters seem to exist primarily to move the plot, or to make points about the societies in which they live.
None of this diminishes the fervently written, often affecting expiation of the politics of racism and the misuse of scientific knowledge that lies at the play’s heart. As Ramon Melindez Moses’ Otabenga moves from loincloths to suits and from modern dance to a studied stillness, there’s no denying the emotional undertow of the play’s intellectual arguments. Staged in the round on a burnished wood floor, the evening becomes the tale of a troubled marriage between Acton’s dissolute, self-doubting Verner and the clearheaded but out of his element Otabenga portrayed by Moses. Their arguments sometimes sound like lovers’ quarrels. “You possess mountains of things as if having will protect you from wanting,” says the African to his American host at a moment of betrayal, “and then you abandon the one person who cares about you the most.” At such moments, the play lives up to the promise of its premise.