Shaw's Skewers, Kabuki-Style
Issue Date: January 18, 2006
You wonder as you watch the Kabuki-influenced "Major Barbara" at La MaMa what George Bernard Shaw would think of it, as his wordy, three-act argument against the military-industrial complex and its enablers, as he saw it, religion and charity, plays out to its sardonic "happy" end.
As a theater critic in his day, Shaw could complain about a director-interpolated Shakespeare production that was more director than Shakespeare, then add, "On the whole, my advice is, go and see it." Fair counsel perhaps in this case, though there is much that does not work. Why go, then? Because there is something true and real that shines out from the director Brooke O'Harra's version, despite its overdone experimental tics of mechanical articulation and repetitive movement, video cams and a failed second act heavy on Kabuki influence and light on delivery.
Ms. O'Harra has studied theater in Japan and Poland, among other places, and her company is named the Theater of a Two-Headed Calf after a play by the avant-garde Polish playwright and painter Stanislaw I. Witkiewicz, who like Shaw was a critic of bourgeois society and the capitalism that supports it. Ms. O'Harra founded the company with Brendan Connelly, a composer, and Mr. Connelly and his very good band, the Scenery Ensemble, are among the strengths of the production, providing a consistent baseline of music - on occasion in synch with the dialogue - and emphatic wood-block claps, the composer briskly calling out the beat from his percussion perch next to the performing space.
The first- and third-act sets - the home of the title character's mother and the munitions factory owned by her cheerfully estranged father ("My religion? Well, my dear, I am a Millionaire. That is my religion") - are well done by Justin Townsend.
At the second act, the audience moves to a landing near the lobby for Shaw's contest between money and faith after Major Barbara challenges her father to watch her save souls for the Salvation Army. Set in the round, the act involves down-and-outs who are as crafty and willing to trade penitence for bread as Andrew Undershaft - Barbara's father - is to sell his weapons to anyone who will buy them. Unfortunately, with the exception of an electric Nadia Mahdi, an Iraqi-born actress who portrays the bully Bill Walker, the cast, required to deliver its lines and whirl and feint in Kabuki-like jousts, is not up to the challenge.
Still, Ms. O'Harra's effective drilling is evident, especially, with Bob Jaffe, arguing persuasively as Undershaft, and Heidi Schreck, as Barbara, trying to refute him. Tina Shepard, as Barbara's mother and Undershaft's wife, copes well with the often dislocated form of delivery Ms. O'Harra requires of the character. It is distancing, for sure, but then what young audience today would not also be distanced by Shaw's weighty, 1905 script - though it has been trimmed? This is a way to hear his warning, still timely 100 years later.