backstage (2007-43)

Oh, Tosh!

George Bernard Shawâ’s recklessly benign Major Barbara

by Kevin Crowe

My religion?â” asks Andrew Undershaft. â“Well, my dear, I am a Millionaire.â” According to the script, thatâ’s spelled with a capital â“M.â” Undershaft is, above all else, an industrialist, an iconoclast within the British conservative party, sure, but a big fat cat nevertheless. He even wears a top hat.

Heâ’s also able to blow very hard with all the fire and brimstone of a good Pentecostal preacher. â“My sort of blood cleanses,â” he says, invoking the motto of the Salvation Army. â“My sort of fire purifies.â” In 1942, George Bernard Shaw wrote in Readerâ’s Digest, â“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.â” This was, apparently, a revelation he chose to ignore from the very beginning of his career.

Back in 1905, when Major Barbara was completed, Shaw had a particularly annoying taste for egghead, unapologetically British shtick. So, if youâ’ve ever laughed at a PBS presentation of Are You Being Served?, but wished it wasnâ’t so over-the-top anarchist in nature, then youâ’ll love Shawâ’s 11th and perhaps most impressively British load of sardonic pomp and circumstance. Itâ’s almost fetishistic to enjoy. And I do.

Thereâ’s plenty of droning dialogue, the kind of circular rhetoric that, by the third act, begins to feel not so much witty as just plain monotonous, as if Shawâ’s brain had been stuck in a loop while he was writing the text.

â“My word,â” screams Charles Lomax, the gratuitous dandy whoâ’s played by the remarkably effete Jon Liddiard, a third-year MFA in Acting candidate at UT. â“My word,â” he cries, feigning absolute perfect prissiness.

An old friend of the universityâ’s stageâ"the impeccably tailored Steve Pickering, who attended UT from 1981-â’84 and now calls Chicago homeâ"plays Undershaft, the unapologetic manufacturer of bombs, torpedoes and submarines. His confidence is absolute. He believes his moral standing to be meticulously constructed and flawless.

Pickering and Carol Mayo Jennings, who plays the part of Undershaftâ’s estranged wife, Lady Britomart, seem to interpret their roles as if thereâ’s still some lingering affection between this daughter of an aristocrat and Undershaft, a foundling who was adopted into a family with a long history of making industrialists out of foundlings.

Major Barbara, played by another third-year MFA student, Lena Hurt, wears her Salvation Army uniform well. When Barbara and her father, Undershaft, begin to delve into the topic of salvation, they donâ’t appear to be arguing but, rather, reading an argument. Itâ’s just as stiff and mannered as Shaw would have hoped for. That meticulous attention to detail alone makes the blandness worthwhile. Call it an exquisite machination of timing and elocution.

Each character displays considerable feats of linguistic acrobatics, and in spite of Shawâ’s efforts to write as recklessly benign as possible, the quips start to lose their zing after three hours. Nothing serious. Now you see it, now you donâ’t, the dramatic equivalent of Morse code.

Back in February, a production of the tragedy of King Lear at UTâ’s Lab Theatre forced MFA students to take turns playing the role of King Lear, which is, according to every college acting class youâ’ll ever take, a very hard role to play.

Major Barbara, on the other hand, is much more fun for the theatrically prudish, stuck somewhere between epiphany and utter devastation. The MFA students can put yet another notch on their belts. One more canonical great performed brilliantly. And this bodes well for really high grade-point averages.

The production currently at UTâ’s Carousel Theatre is so subtly zany that itâ’s easy to forget just how funny it can be. Call the drama â“Tosh,â” as Charles Lomax most certainly would. At least call it something a little more playful than philosophy, complete with Shawâ’s repetitive, esoteric rhetorical feats that feel more comfortable in the classroom than on the stage.

What: Major Barbara

When: Thru Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 21, 2:30 p.m.

Where: UT Carousel Theatre

How Much: $20-$25

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