Man and Superman

I have been extremely busy for several months and also as a result very tired in my limited spare time, and now I am way backed up on things I should have been blogging about as they happened.

Most important is to get the word out on things that are still around and won’t be for all that much longer. So.

On July 4 Dave and I saw the first preview of Shaw’s Man and Superman at Cal Shakespeare. Wonderful production, lovely weather, all in all a terrific evening. I was surprised and grateful to discover on reading the program that they were going to do what I would have thought to be impossible: include the “Don Juan in Hell” sequence and get us out of there in time to catch BART.

Man and Superman, like so many of Shaw’s middling late plays, is overstuffed with philosophical talk and also very long. Performed without cuts, the play can easily run four, four and a half hours — while we were waiting for the show to begin last night, the man sitting to my right was saying to me that the last time he had seen it, they had even done it with a dinner break between acts two and three.

In the third act, stuck in Spain during a motor trip from London to Nice, Jack Tanner has a dream in which he is Don Juan Tenorio, some time after he has been dragged to Hell. It’s a long and talky dream sequence, full of philosophical musings on the true nature of Heaven and Hell and other matters, and as much fun the play of ideas is, the overall story of the play is certainly coherent without it, so the play is often cut down to more manageable size by simply cutting this sequence. In the only production I’ve seen before this one, that’s what was done. And to make up for cutting such a wonderful sequence from the full play, the dream sequence by itself is sometimes performed as a one-act play under the name “Don Juan in Hell”.

That’s an easy but unsatisfying solution, shortening the play by cutting one of its most distinctive and colorful features, rather like the Japanese television station that is said to have shortened The Sound of Music for broadcast by cutting all the songs. So I’m happy to say that in this production they manage to include “Don Juan in Hell” and still keep things down to three hours and a quarter by (a) a lot of skillful trimming and condensing of the text all the way through, (b) having only one 15-minute intermission, and (c) having everyone speak their lines at a pretty brisk clip.

The production is terrific. The set and costumes are witty and delightful and uncomplicated. One beef: I know that the anachronisms in the philosophizing are part of the fun of the dream sequence, but I could have done without the Devil rolling in the drinks cart, mostly because the audience guffawed so loudly at the sight of Doña Ana opening up a can of Tab that it completely drowned out her line; but it was a first preview after all and maybe by opening night they figured out how to keep that from happening. And overall it’s a beautiful production visually.

The acting is terrific all around. Elijah Alexander is particularly remarkable as Jack Tanner/Don Juan, because just memorizing so many long speeches and being able to speak them so quickly and yet intelligibly and convincingly all by itself would have been quite a dazzling feat of technical skill, so that the fact that he gave such a dashing and delicious and funny performance at the same time is gravy. Peter Callender, whom Dave and I last saw giving a magnificently intense and angry performance in Permanent Collection at the Aurora, looked like he was having a lot of fun playing an intense and angry man for laughs this time around in the character of the wealthy Roebuck Ramsden. Susannah Livingston was terrific as the sweetly manipulative Ann Whitefield, but didn’t seem as well grounded in her character when she was playing Doña Ana in the dream, I’m not really sure why. Maybe the nerves of the first performance.

Anyway, it’s a production worth remembering and savoring and Dave and I are hoping to get back for another performance.

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