Monthly Archive for: ‘January, 2014’

Shaw’s MAJOR BARBARA a smash hit at A.C.T.

(l to r): Gretchen Hall (Barbara), Nicholas Pelezar (Adolphus),Stafford Perry (Stephen)Kandis Chapman (Lady Undershaft), Tyrell Crews (Charles Lomax), Elyse Price (Sarah) in Scene 1.

Major Barbara: Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Dennis Garnhum. American Conservatory Theater (ACT), 415 Geary St., San Francisco, CA. (415) 749-2228 or Through February 2, 2014

Shaw’s MAJOR BARBARA a smash hit at A.C.T.   Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)

Undertaking to mount a George Bernard Shaw play requires quality actors, astute direction and understanding of his social philosophy to overcome his propensity to sermonize with lengthy dialog. In 2008 San Jose Rep, under Timothy Near’s direction, produced a brilliant and memorable Major Barbara. With that memory still vivid this reviewer entered the theatre with a bit of trepidation that totally disappeared by the time the cast took their well-deserved bows after doing great justice to Shaw’s 1905 play. Its themes are as cogent today as they were then.

 Shaw is an equal opportunity skewer of entrenched attitudes on all social levels, a champion of women’s rights, and an astute observer of injustice with the ability to strip the façade of hypocrisy. In Major Barbara he attacks with equal vigor the sanctimony of the Salvation Army and the justifications of the arms manufacturers noting the driving force of both groups is money. Consider the fact that the motto of the Salvation Army, “Fire and Blood”, is identical to that of Andrew Undershaft’s (Dean Paul Gibson) munitions factory that has developed a highly lethal bomb and a bomber capable of delivering what our present generation calls the “weapon of mass destruction.”

In between these two major themes he sneaks in the smugness of the British social elite and the self-delusion of politicians. He populates his plays with characters from all strata of society creating a fascinating mélange to carry his thoughts forward with didactic infused with humor.

Major Barbara was first produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1905 and on Broadway in 1915. This production is produced in association with Theatre Calgary and their artistic director Dennis Granhum directs the cast with enthusiasm and understanding beginning with a charming first scene as a drawing room comedy with Kandis Chapman giving a stunning precise performance of an English matriarch dominating son Stephen whose responses are delightfully apprehensive. Through her extended dialog Shaw adroitly outlines the family relationships and upcoming conflicts before the arrival of Andrew Undershaft whom she has invited to visit the family.

There is the aforementioned Andrew Undershaft, who sired two daughters Barbara, the eldest, (Gretchen Hall), Sarah (Elyse Price) and son Stephen (Stafford Perry) with his wife Lady Britomart Undershaft (Kandis Chappell). Andrew has not seen his children since their childhoods, and has not lived at home but provides financial support. Barbara has joined the Salvation Army and risen to the rank of Major and has a fiancé Adolphus Cusins (Nicholas Pelezar) an Australian  professor of Greek who seems at first to be supercilious but before the play ends he matches Andrew sentence for sentence and idea for idea. Pelezar and Gibson give bravo performances during their confrontation.

Shaw creates indelible lower class characters. Act two shifts to West Ham Salvation Army shelter  where we meet Romola “Rummy” Mitchens (Valerie Planche), Bronterre O’Brien “Snobby” Price (Dan Clegg), Peter Shirley (Dan Hiatt) who have been willing to aver that their souls have been saved in order to have food and shelter. Hypocrisy dwells on all strata of society. 

Plance, Hiatt and Clegg give marvelous verisimilitude to each of their characters carrying their fine acting in their double roles in act three. Andrew’s devious confrontation with the denizens and leaders of the shelter invokes compromise of the Salvation Army’s professed motivations causing Barbara to withdraw from the Mission.

In Act three the Undershaft family and entourage visit the munitions factory and the model town of Perivale St. Andrews that has been built with the profits from arms sales. The factory workers live an idyllic life in this company town without guilt feelings about the source of their happiness. The overwhelming ambiance of this perfect town and its life style change the preconceived concepts of the Undershaft family and their entourage about the source of Andrew’s wealth.

The production values of this play are astounding.  It involves massive sets with scene one drawing room brought forward on a carriage stage to be surrounded by a junkyard of distressed windows and doors completing a semicircle around the entire rear stage. The rear wall remains intact and is integral to becoming the West Ham shelter for act two. This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is perfectly integrated.

It is the final act configuration of the munitions factory that is a wonder. With aphorisms written in block letters on the huge backdrop while life-like bombs are strung up over the set signifying their potential devastation that is horrifying.  Even though they have moved the final act from a scene outside the factory, and some of the stage directions have been violated, one would hope that George Bernard Shaw would give a begrudging nod for the staging. He certainly could have no qualms about the acting. (Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission)

(Andrew Undershaft (Dean Paul Gibson) and Barbara (Gretchen Hall in the bomb factory)

SET DESIGN by Daniel Ostling; COSTUME DESIGN by Alex Jaeger; LIGHTING DESIGN by Alan Brodie; SOUND DESIGN by Scott Killian; DRAMATURGS Michael Paller and Zachary Moull; CASTING by Janet Foster,CSA; ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Zachary Moull; STAGE MANAGER Elisa Guthertz.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of

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