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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Aurora Theatre Production of George Bernard Shaw's The Man of Destiny Boasts an Exceptional Ensemble

Also see Richard's review of The Glory of Living

The Aurora Theatre Company is currently presenting the rarely staged one act lighthearted comedy of egos, The Man of Destiny, by George Bernard Shaw. This is a humorous tête-à-tête between 27 year old general Napoleon Bonaparte and a strange lady one morning in May 1796.

George Bernard Shaw was a fervent advocate of the new theatre of Ibsen. This play, one of his earliest dramas (written in 1898) and subtitled Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, savagely attacks social hypocrisy. However, it is less fierce than some of his other plays. The comedy drama was presented by the Protean Theatre Company in New York in 1997 with Jeff Gurner playing Napoleon and Penny Balfour as the Strange Lady. There was a television adaptation by the Community Television of Southern California in 1973 for PBS starring Stacy Keach as the General and Samantha Eggar as the Strange Lady. Sir Ian MacKellen played the role in the UK in the early '80s at the Lyric Theatre.

Man of Destiny takes place just two days after the Battle of Lodi between French and Austrian troops where cannonade became an important part of warfare. The French have defeated the Austrian troops and the young General Napoleon (T. Edward Webster), who is liberating Italy for the republican cause, is waiting for his dispatches in a little inn at Tavazzano on the road between Lodi and Milan. The lieutenant (Craig Neibaur) who was suppose to have been carrying them arrives, but they have been stolen from him on the way by a youth.

A mysterious young lady (Stacy Ross) arrived at the Inn just that morning, and the Lieutenant recognizes the lady as the male youth he met on the way. The lady explains she has a twin brother and that it must have been her brother who stole the lieutenant's dispatches and horse. However, a battle of wits takes place between the lady and Napoleon, since he recognizes that she and the "brother" are one and the same. The lady challenges the General's sense of honor and character over the retrieval of a collection of sensitive letters.

Napoleon, fueled by his own bravado and faith in his battle plans, sets out to prove that there is nothing be cannot master by force. However, the lady is more than a match for the General's strategic mind and she sets about systematically turning his organized world upside down. The lady is willing to turn over the documents with the exception of one "love letter" that she does not want the General to see. The letter turns out to be a love letter from Napoleon's wife Josephine to another man.

Since this is a one act play, director Barbara Oliver has wisely incorporated the long solo essay about Napoleon Bonaparte as a prologue spoken by Jeffrey Bihr. The excellent veteran actor comes out dressed in a long black coat, speaking in an English accent to the audience about the historical figure, in order to put the drama into proper context. He tells us that Napoleon was not born of nobility, that he is imaginative without illusions and creative without religion, loyalty, patriotism or any of the common ideals. He says that the General's technical specialty is cannonading the enemy. He says "Napoleon perceived for the first time since the invention of gunpowder that a cannon ball, if it strikes a man, it will kill him." Our narrator then slowly puts on grayish makeup and takes off his black coat to reveal the costume of an Italian innkeeper in the 18th century. Now with an Italian accent, Bihr becomes Giuseppe. This is a brilliant piece of stage acting and it sets the mood of the play.

Man of Destiny
T. Edward Webster and Stacy Ross
Barbara Oliver has assembled an outstanding ensemble for this 90 minute piece with Stacy Ross (Book of Days, Hedda Gabler and Cloud Nine) taking center stage as the The Strange Lady. She is wonderful in the role - properly coquettish when necessary, blunt when it suits her "cat and mouse game" with the General, mysterious, wistful and witty, all rolled up into one dazzling performance. She even dresses up toward the end in male costume in an effort to confuse the buffoon Lieutenant.

T. Edward Webster (Lobby Hero and Suddenly Last Summer) seems a little weak as the French general. He still does not have a handle on the witty George Bernard Shaw dialogue and he seems no match for the theatric tics of Stacy Ross. However, his soliloquy toward the end of the production on what is an Englishman is pure Shavian acting.

Craig Neibaur (The Lonesome West and Five Flights) is great fun as the somewhat egotistical clown of a noble gentlemen who is a French lieutenant. As Napoleon threatens to shoot the young man because he does everything wrong, the wise innkeeper suggest that he be made a general. That way, whatever he does will always be right.

Jeffrey Bihr is excellent as the prologue narrator and very good as Giuseppe the innkeeper at Tavazzano. He has a wonderful Shavian wit about him when speaking his lines.

Greg Dunham has designed an interesting set for the three sided stage, which includes the front of the inn at Tavazzano with hanging shuttered windows coming from the ceiling. Costumes by Clare Henkel are authentic Napoleonic uniforms. Direction by Barbara Oliver is brisk and smooth.

The Man of Destiny is a wonderful paean to militarism Shaw style. It contains long speeches which consist mainly of pretentiousness and rhetoric that are wonderful to hear. The production runs through March 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets can be obtained by calling 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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