Love's trials get a philosophic workout
Portland audiences who see George Bernard Shaw's 'Man and Superman' will catch one of the author's rarely performed, though most admired, works.
'Man and Superman' was published 100 years ago, the 10th of 50 plays Shaw wrote in his 94 years (he died partway through No. 51).
Even now it remains a lively battle of wits, dating from the time when Shaw and fellow Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde were blowing cobwebs out of the stuffy London theater.
The play is subtitled 'A Comedy and a Philosophy,' but Portlanders are lucky Ñ they'll be getting the comic slice with only a little philosophy thrown in.
Left out will be an extremely long third-act dream sequence that's sometimes performed separately as 'Don Juan in Hell.' It's a goat-choking chunk of text that burdens the actors with long speeches and stops the story dead in its tracks for about 25 minutes.
Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman, who directed 'Man and Superman' nine years ago in Atlanta, was able to persuade his former colleague Peter Ganim to reprise the lead role of Jack Tanner. The two knew better than to add 'Don Juan in Hell.'
'We're producing it as Shaw did at first: Acts 1, 2 and 4,' Coleman says. 'Maybe one day if I'm running Ashland we'll do the whole thing, but Sunday we read through the third act for kicks, and my God, it was interminable.'
What will be staged is the battle between the independent artist Jack Tanner (Ganim) and his ward, Ann (Jessica Walling), the girl who's determined to land him.
Tanner's behavior very much fits Shaw's own; when Shaw's longtime girlfriend Charlotte Payne-Townshend suggested they marry, he inquired about the price of a ticket to Australia. Early performances often had Tanner made up to appear like the playwright himself.
The witty duel between Tanner and Ann represents Shaw's view that man is the creative artist, while woman is the life force that will inevitably bend him to her will.
Ganim, who's 35, says the nine years since his first appearance as Tanner have given him more insight into the character.
'When I was younger it seemed like I had so much to say, it took a lot of energy and I used very broad strokes,' he says. 'This time we really slowed it down and looked closely at everything. And everything is essential. Shaw's not just setting up a situation so he can talk for a page and a half.'
The domino effect of the essential dramatic threads running throughout the play remind Coleman of an early, disastrous encounter with it.
'I remember doing the last scene between Ann and Jack in class in college. It was horrible. I had no idea what was going on. Now when I work on it I realize it's impossible to do the scene without the rest of the play.'
Tanner and Ann's relationship is complicated by the fact that Ann's late father left stuffy uncle Roebuck Ramsden (Michael Kevin) as her other guardian, and he cannot stand Tanner. She's also being wooed by hapless suitor Octavius Robinson (David Crowe).
And Octavius' sister Violet (Sarah Overman) has a secret of her own concerning American Hector Malone (Kelly Allen Boulware), whose wealthy father (Gray Eubank) will cut him off without a dime should he marry without permission.
It's easy to see that the course of true love can't possibly run smooth.
Apart from the fourth-act confrontation between Tanner and Ann, Coleman says, the start of the final act is a challenge, too.
'It's very tough Ñ the scene between Violet and Mr. Malone (the father). You're in Act 4 and you introduce a completely new character Ñ who sits down and talks for 15 minutes! It's the last funny chunk of the play, and you get a fantastic payoff two scenes later, but it's tough.'
Does the play still work 100 years after its publication? Ganim recalls the last time he did it.
'I remember watching out of the corner of my eye. All these guys Ñ these football players Ñ were dragged there by their girlfriends. They were slumped down in the first act, sitting up in the second and on the edge of their seats slapping their thighs by the third. They couldn't wait to find out what happened next. Absolutely, it holds up today.'
Have Shaw's ideas rubbed off on Coleman or Ganim? Coleman answers, choosing his words carefully.
'I'll be 42 in September, and it's made me think about relationships. I'm not Tanner, but I haven't settled down, and it makes me think about why. What do you give up? Shaw writes beautifully about how men feel about women and how scary their power is. I like the idea that many of us do want to have some impact on the world, some impression that will be left due to our own individuality and not just our appropriations.
'Do the women come out ahead? Oh yeah. That's why this is funny. All men recognize themselves and ultimately, we might as well give up.'