Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Man and Superman," George Bernard Shaw's 1905 opus being presented by California Shakespeare Theater, is subtitled "A Comedy and a Philosophy." Those five words sum up the very heart of the rarely performed play, which expounds on Shaw's ideas about society, marriage, the sexes and other issues. According to press material for the 1990 Berkeley Repertory Theatre production, "Shaw depicts the working of 'creative evolution' and the life force which he believed would create a superman of advanced abilities and intellect."
He does so through his two central characters, Jack Tanner (the energetic Elijah Alexander) and Ann Whitefield (the luminous Susannah Livingston). Jack, the author of the scandalous (to the upper class) "The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion," resists when he learns that the will of Ann's late father appoints him and an older family friend, Roebuck Ramsden (L. Peter Callender) as Ann's guardians. He resists even more as Ann cleverly manipulates circumstances in hopes of marrying him. He encourages her to marry Octavius Robinson (Ben Livingston, Susannah Livingston's husband), who adores her.
Shaw's script reportedly takes more than five hours to perform in its entirety. Hence most productions pare it down. Cal Shakes is no different, although it does retain the often-cut "Don Juan in Hell" dream scene. Even so, it runs more than three hours, but thanks to artistic director Jonathan Moscone's canny direction and an outstanding cast, it usually moves quickly. It can be talky and sometimes repetitious, but it still captivates. (Moscone was an assistant to director Irene Lewis for the Berkeley Rep production.)
A subplot involving Octavius' sister, Violet (Delia MacDougall), who is pregnant and secretly married to an American, Hector Malone (T. Edward Webster), gives Shaw a chance to tackle social hypocrisy. The Don Juan scene features a speech by the Devil (Andy Murray), who could just as well be talking today when he decries the fact that nations spend more on fighting wars than on eliminating poverty.
Also featured in the excellent cast are Nancy Carlin as Mrs. Whitefield, Ann's mother; Dan Hiatt as Henry Straker, Jack's chauffeur; C. Dianne Manning as Miss Ramsden, Roebuck's sister; and Steve Irish as Hector's father, Hector Malone Sr.
Shaw, who was an music and drarma critic before he became well known as a playwright, was inspired in part by Mozart's operatic masterpiece, "Don Giovanni." This production makes the connection obvious by opening with the ominous notes of the opera's overture and using arias and ensembles -- lip-synched by the play's parallel characters -- from the opera at various times, especially scene changes. The stylish production features a flexible set by Annie Smart with lighting by Russell H. Champa, handsome turn-of-the-century costumes by Anna R. Oliver and sound by James W. Ballen.
Shaw isn't always easy to digest because his characters do go on and on, but, thanks to the skills and artistry of all involved, this "Man and Superman" is a rare treat.