Man & Superman
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Through July 29
Susannah Livingston as Ann Whitefield and Ben Livingston as Octavius Robinson. Photo: Kevin Berne.
George Bernard Shaw, writing as a critic, once dubbed Don Giovanni the greatest opera of all, a nonpareil work of art on the planet. As a playwright, he penned his Man and Superman as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Mozart’s masterpiece, going so far as to set a portion of the second act in Hell as a kind of epilogue to the tale of the reprobate who gets his just deserts. And the play itself gets full justice in the current performance at the Bruns Ampitheatre in Orinda. Drawing upon some of the best actors in the Bay Area, many of them associate artists of Cal Shakes, Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone helms a production that ranks among the best ever done by a company that just seems to get better and better every summer.
More than three hours long, even when it’s so cold that the actors’ breath can be seen and the audience is huddled under blankets, Shaw’s wit warms the soul. His philosophy – supremacy of women as exemplars of the Life Force, a radical socialism, known as Fabianism in his day, hatred of armed conflict and contempt for the British obsession with class – challenges the mind. Annie Smart’s clever set design, with an art deco proscenium framing everything from an upper-class British drawing room to a garden in Granada, right down to the very bowels of Hell, enchants the eye, as do Anna R. Oliver’s costumes. And the addition of excerpts from Don Giovanni as incidental music between scenes and at key moments is both inspired and hilarious.
You don’t have to know the opera to follow this play. Nevertheless, for opera buffs and those who were privileged to see San Francisco Opera’s recent and splendid “Don,” comparisons are not odious but a lot of fun. The plot of the opera is roughly about a womanizing rogue whose adventures lead him into the depths of Hell at the end. Virtue is triumphant. The rake’s name, Don Giovanni, is Italianate for Don Juan Tenorio, a Spanish nobleman who was the model for the tale. So Shaw gives us Jack Tanner, a wealthy commitment-phobic revolutionary philosopher whose idea of Hell is to be married to one woman for life. Enter the lovely Ann Whitfield (Dona Ana in Mozart) who pursues Jack relentlessly, not for vengeance as in the opera but because she wants him as a husband. Jack too will end up in his own personal Hell, not for his sins but for her virtue. “What is virtue,” he asks “but the trade union of the married?”
Elijah Alexander anchors the production as Jack/Don Juan. His is an energetic, fast-paced, if not particularly nuanced performance and he deserves extra credit for learning a large number of very long speeches. Susannah Livingston, a Cal Shakes veteran is a delightful Ann/Dona Ana, alternately flirtatious and coy and sure of herself. She is the embodiment of Shaw’s beloved Life Force and, when she rushes off the stage in Act Three shouting: “A father for the Superman…” all the men had better watch out.
In love with Dona Ana in the opera is Ottavio, a slavishly devoted swain who, in spite of having a few good tunes, is the most boring creature on the stage. His Shavian counterpart is Octavius Robinson (Ben Livingston) who, while not nearly as boring, is just as devoted and given to breaking down in tears when his women disappoint him. One of those women is Ann, who throws him over for Jack. The other is his sister Violet (Delia MacDougall), who gets married and pregnant without his knowledge in a subplot that brings forth Shaw’s ideas on class distinction.
An outstanding supporting cast includes Dan Hiatt as Jack’s chauffeur, better educated and more sensible than his master, L. Peter Callendar as a pompous British aristocrat and the statue of Mozart’s Commendatore down in Hell and Nancy Carlin as Ann’s put-upon mother. With a very special mention for the fabulous Andy Murray, doubling as Mendoza, a lovesick Spanish bandit and an urbane and highly civilized Lucifer who references Dante and Milton in a long and magnificent soliloquy on mankind’s preoccupation with war and death that is creepily current to our own time.
Cal Shakes’ Man and Superman is a feast for the eye, the ear and the brain. It is the kind of meal that gorges you full but you won’t need Pepto Bismol the next day. Bon appetit!