As was his custom Shaw provided a lengthy preface to Heartbreak House in which he asks, "Why not write two plays about the war instead of two pamphlets on it?" The war in question was World War I and the play in question, although he claims to have begun it earlier, wasn't published until 1919 and not produced until the following year. Shaw tells us he withheld the play from the footlights during the war for fear the Germans would "turn the last act from play into earnest, and even then might not have waited for their cues."
We're probably in no mortal danger for having this production at The Huntington for the next few weeks despite the fact that we've learned that we, too, have enemies who believe our own society to be as corrupt and contemptible as Shaw (not the Germans) found the Edwardians'. And despite the fact that the foundation of our being has been rocked by last September's events, most would not agree with Shaw that "you cannot make war on war and on your neighbor at the same time." His contention that "war cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage" has been tested and proved wrong in recent months.
Unfortunately, Shaw chose to write an anti-war play without mentioning the word and provided no direct evidence in the text that the setting was 1914 [which the program does offer]. His preface, in fact, is far more enlightening than the play itself as to what he found so undeserving about his fellow countrymen and why, nonetheless, he hotly defended their right to go on being unenlightened and uninspired.
As is usually the case, the Huntington has mounted a handsome production thanks to set designer Alexander Dodge, the man also responsible for the magnificent Hedda Gabler which transferred to Broadway this fall. He fully realizes Shaw's description of Captain Shotover's drawing room, fashioned after the stern galley of a high-pooped ship. And he does Shaw one better by setting the final act on the two-tiered rear decks of the house rather than in the back garden itself. The scene change during the second intermission is well worth staying in your seat for.
Some audience members may have missed the transformation all together, thinking the play was over at the end of the second act. Their confusion is understandable, for Shaw's characters, each a mouthpiece for an aspect of his own polemic, talk and talk; and then when it's time, they stop and we go home.
The cast does their best to give life to each of the guests and members of this bohemian household. Richard Bekins and Amy Van Nostrand succeed admirably as Hector and Hesione Hushabye, the host and hostess of the weekend shenanigans. Shaw had the most fun with them, and Linda Cho helps by providing colorful, eccentric costumes for the pair.
The same cannot be said for J.P. Linton and Mia Barron. He's retired sea captain Captain Shotover, the titular head of the estate, preoccupied with trying to achieve the seventh degree of concentration (with a little help from some rum). She's Ellie Dunn, the poor, but practical young girl with whom he feels a kinship and decides to impart his wisdom. Ellie, however, has come for the weekend to tie up the lose ends of her pre-nuptial arrangements with a rich old goat, have her heart broken and perhaps learn a thing or two about life. There is a picture in the Huntington's program of Rex Harrison and Amy Irving in these roles from a 1983 production of Heartbreak House that offers us a better clue to Shaw's intentions. Harrison looks, appropriately enough, exactly like Shaw himself, and Irving, in a lacy summer gown, gazing at him adoringly, looks like the proper surprise package for a Shavian young woman.
Shaw always has ideas worth exploring; but, as often the case, they could be equally well served by staying home to read the play (or the preface) curled up by the fire.
Heartbreak House is at The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through February 3rd. For additional information and tickets call 617 266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org.
The same cannot be said for the New Repertory Theatre's current production, Richard Wilbur's translation of Moliere's comic masterpiece Tartuffe. Director Rick Lombardo transports us back in time to a command performance in a recreation of a 17th Century playhouse. This is an experience not to be missed.
Lighting designer John Ambrosone manages to represent candle illumination without setting off sprinklers or bringing out the code enforcers. He starts with chandeliers, hung over the audience and the footlight-rimmed stage, filled with electric candelabra bulbs then adds a little smoke and a few amber fresnels to bathe the entire room in a convincing warm, smoky glow. Emily Dunn's elaborate period costumes, done in a lovely soft palette, and Kristin Loeffler's painted backdrop and exquisite gold trimmed proscenium complete the effect.
The make-up design, which I assume is to be credited to the cast, as well as the overall bawdy, physical acting style so influenced by comedia dell'arte is a credible representation of what we take to be the theatrical style of Moliere's day. In the hands of Lombardo and his fine company of actors this is made to seem an effortless feat as they wrestle with the world of physical objects, bounce off each other and the walls and have fun with words. In fact, this type of comedy is the hardest thing in the world to do well, second only to keeping it in control once you've gotten it right.
We watch the play in the presence of Louis XIV, the Queen, and his disapproving cleric. At the king's request, Moliere, in the person of actor Michael Poisson, suddenly switches the planned entertainment to a performance of Tartuffe, throwing the company into a momentary tizzy while they regroup.
The playwright's nervousness hardly abates through the entire course of the evening. As he was accustomed to doing, Moliere gives his all to the performance of Orgon, one of the central figures in the play. But he can't help stealing the occasional sidelong glance at the King, hoping for an inkling of whether or not he might now obtain the long-withheld approval for this controversial work. Not to give away Lombardo's denouement of this framing device, but the ending manages to be the crowning achievement of what is already an evening of many highs.
Marianna Bassham, a third year student in the graduate acting program at Brandeis University, is delightfully goofy as Orgon's hapless daughter, about to be married off to the devious Tartuffe. Her fate is sealed unless the saucy servant Dorine (Jennie Israel), the only one with enough wits to foil the plot, can convince the girl's mother (Deena Mazer) to set a trap for the religious hypocrite. In the hands of these three actors the women's machinations are a joy to watch.
It's also always nice to see the familiar faces of local actors, especially Richard McElvain, a delightful face under any circumstance, made all the more so by the addition of a long, pointy nose for his inspired portrayal of Tartuffe. He, along with Poisson and the rest of the men, seem born to wear those costumes and wigs and strut their stuff on the boards of the Palais-Royal.
This journey back to 1667 is no academic exercise. Despite the fact that the theme of the play resonates with modern overtones and could easily serve to make fun of our own right-wing fundamentalists, it was an inspired choice to whisk us back to the time of its writing. We are well reminded that Moliere provided the popular entertainment of his day.
Tartuffe, now through February 10th, at the New Rep Theater, 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands, Mass. For tickets and further information call the box office at 617-332-1646 (voice and TTY) or email to email@example.com. For directions visit the website at www.newrep.org.