Review: `Man and Superman’

Jul 08

Opened Saturday, July 7, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Cal Shakes’ Man and Superman soars with superheroic cast
four stars Shavian perfection

A lifetime happiness? No man alive could bear it.

So says Jack Tanner the irresistible leading man in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, the second show of the California Shakespeare Theater season.

A lifetime of happiness may be unattainable, but for about three hours and 15 minutes, director Jonathan Moscone, his extraordinary cast and Shaw’s incredible gift for enlightened entertainment provide a distinct measure of glee.

The summer weather in Orinda, not to mention Shaw himself, can get a little chilly, and sure enough, Saturday’s opening night was shrouded in fog and brisk around the edges. But Moscone and his actors kept the chill at bay with a production so full of energy and ideas that you left the Bruns Amphitheater more charged up than when you entered it.

Moscone has judiciously trimmed what he could from Acts 1, 2 and 4 so that he can include the Act 3 play-within-the-play, Don Juan in Hell, a thrilling dream sequence that cuts to the heart of the issues in the play and provides an enjoyable philosophical take on humanity that essentially says nothing ever really changes, we’ll never fully know why we’re here, we’re obsessed with our fear/love of death and it would be foolish to exist without a balance of serious thought and serious fun.

Most productions of Man and Superman cut the Don Juan sequence (or produce it as its own one-act play), but it’s a joy to see the sequence in the context of the larger play, because it really does pull everything together.

Moscone aids this unity by incorporating swaths of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, with actors lip synching arias and choruses to great comic effect.

That’s really the only directorial embellishment here. Otherwise, this is straightforward Shaw, performed on Annie Smart’s elegant, simple sets: an industrial metal pair of curlicues provides a sort of proscenium with the gorgeous trees and hills fully visible (and lit beautifully by Russell H. Champa) behind.

During an Act 2 trip to a country home, we’re treated to a psiffy early 20th-century automobile, and when the scene changes to Hell, where the devil is outfitted like Hugh Hefner and nuns consigned to the lower depths drink Tab and Heineken, we get illuminated rocks and, ultimately, a disco party.

The tremendous efforts of the cast here cannot be emphasized too highly, especially those of leading man Elijah Alexander as the roguish revolutionary Jack Tanner and Susannah Livingston as the charming, conniving Ann Whitefield (above).

These two formidable actors carry the bulk of the play (with the heavy lifting in hell provided by an exuberant Andy Murray as Senor Satan) and attack their roles with such seeming joy, it’s almost impossible not to be swept away by them. They are overflowing with the Life Force that Shaw keeps bringing up in the text.

Alexander (last seen at Cal Shakes in Restoration Comedy) has numerous rants against the hypocrisy of so-called liberals and against the horrendous institution of marriage, but he’s never boring. Part of the reason is that he’s physically so invested in what he’s saying — his body language punctuates everything he says unbelievably well. Never mind that all the other characters listen to him then summarily dismiss everything he says.

And Livingston, a Cal Shakes regular, is all grace, intelligence and ulterior motives as her character manipulates pretty much everyone on stage.

L. Peter Callender is a marvelous Roebuck Ramsden, a pillar of society and a prude (as Jack Tanner says, “Pooh, prudery!”), and Ben Livingston (husband of Susannah in case you were wondering) almost makes the mealy mouthed Octavius Robinson pitiable as everyone keeps telling him to be more of a man.

Delia MacDougall is commanding as Violet Robinson, and Dan Hiatt is great fun as the chauffeur Straker, a man for more educated and worldly wise than the middle-class boobs who employ him.

Shaw jokes about the “pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in,” but Shaw’s plays, especially Man and Superman provide a strenuous mental workout. Such an effort for our lazy 21st-century minds could be tedious, but when the exercise is as sharp, clever and captivating as this Cal Shakes production, there’s happiness to be found as Shaw asks us to ponder religion, politics, art and that trifling thing known as human existence.

For information about Man and Superman, visit www.calshakes.org.

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