Hector (Mark Lewis) and Hesione (Melora Marshall) in Heartbreak House.
Shaw are screwball
By Ed Rampell
I was especially eager and curious to see the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s excellent adaptation of Heartbreak House because I know little about George Bernard Shaw beyond his plays, Major Barbara and Pygmalion. To be sure, Heartbreak House is veddy British, and the Theatricum troupe regales the audience with convincing English accents, although its thespians are mostly or all Yanks. But there’s much more to this work than being a mere drawing-room comedy of manners.
Shaw wrote Heartbreak House under the influence of playwright Anton Chekhov, subtitling it A Fantasia in the Russian Manner of English Themes. However, Heartbreak House seems in turn to have had a major impact on American screenwriting and playwriting: It is arguably the prototypical screwball comedy, a genre which hit its prime on the silver screen during the Great Depression. Shaw’s play has the attributes of this breed of humor, notable for its madcap perspective and cross-class romancing, such as in Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night and George Cukor’s 1940 The Philadelphia Story. Indeed, Heartbreak House’s Bohemian household seems to be forerunners of the wacky, freethinking Sycamore family in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1937 play You Can’t Take It With You, which Capra adapted for the screen a year later.
Heartbreak House debuted just as the twenties started to roar, and must have seemed very libertine in its day. With its shifting romantic liaisons, dalliances and alliances, the play seems as sexually footloose as characters in Woody Allen films, particularly his 1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. The play is largely seen as an allegory of Europe on the eve of destruction, as World War I, that charnel house of trench warfare and poison gas (the WMDs of its day),looms. This conflagration is hinted at near the end, wherein director Ellen Geer makes good use of the Topanga Canyon grounds where the Theatricum’s amphitheater is set. In any case, what especially interests me about Shaw is that he takes complex theories about economics and class and renders them in dramatic form in a popular mass entertainment medium.
For example, in 1913’s Pygmalion, smug middle class Prof. Henry Higgins, that cunning linguist, indulges in class struggle (as well as the war between the sexes) with the plebian flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whom he endeavors to convert from a guttersnipe into a well mannered repository of respectability. (Along with Moss Hart, Lerner and Lowe famously transformed Pygmalion into the beloved musical My Fair Lady; incidentally, Rex Harrison starred in screen versions of My Fair Lady in 1964 and of Heartbreak House in 1985.) In 1905’s Major Barbara Shaw, a man of the left, dramatizes an economic theory about the role the armaments industry plays in industrial capitalism that is similar to that of the German Spartacist Rosa Luxemburg.
Shaw similarly skewers capitalism in Heartbreak House, and Alan Blumenfeld has good fun deconstructing Boss Mangan. At the heart of the play is whether or not the far younger and more attractive Ellie Dunn (Willow Geer) should wed this presumed man of means. Shaw poses the predicament: Is one to marry for money or love? He also reveals the dilemma of women during that era, disadvantaged by society’s chauvinist conventions and constrictions, and how marriages of conveniences were among the few options open to the so-called “fairer sex.”
Heartbreak House also references race relations. Captain Shotover, the world rover, mentions that he married a “Negress” in the Caribbean, which would make his coquettish daughters with their Greek myth inspired names, depicted by the Caucasian actresses Ariadne Utterword (Susan Angelo) and Hesione Hushabye (Melora Marshall), biracial. However, unlike in the Theatricum’s version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, also playing this summer in repertory, the themes of miscegenation and race are barely if at all explored in its Heartbreak House.
To my untutored ear Willow affects a flawless English accent, as does most of the cast, as they toss Shavian barbs about like so many verbal Molotov cocktails. Willow’s Ellie convincingly careens from girlish innocence to Lady MacBeth-like scheming. As the family patriarch, Captain Shotover, Hunt is alternately daft and worldly wise, and dispenses some indispensable pearls of wisdom to befuddled Ellie. Mark Lewis is suitably dashing as the rakish raconteur Hector Hushabye, while Ed Giron as the bungling burglar, Aaron Hendry as Randall Utterword and David Stifel as Mazzini Dunn, all have suitably comic turns. On opening night some of the best dialogue was delivered by a dog who repeatedly barked during the first scene -- before adlibbing lines in a droll improv that led to the canine thespian’s expulsion from the stage.
Ellen skillfully helms the ensemble cast of around 15, but one standout who demands to be remarked upon is the mellifluous Marshall, who marshals her considerable energy and talent like a preternaturally gifted shape shifter. In the Theatricum’s Measure for Measure Marshall plays a mustachioed male character, but in Heartbreak House she portrays one of Captain Shotover’s daughters, the eccentric seductress Hesione Hushabye. As she slings zingers with savoir faire, clad in her gown and wig of long black tresses, Marshall is simply unrecognizable from the Lucio she depicts in Measure for Measure. A non-actor can only marvel at how thespians can transmute themselves from one role to another completely different, even diametrically opposed part.
There is much to commend this play to the viewer, but Marshall’s performance alone is worth the ticket price. This type of sophisticated theater driven by the oral pyrotechnics of Shaw’s dialogue may not be everyone’s cup of tea and crumpets, but to them I say “pshaw!” I loved this sparkling, sexy, witty gem.
Heartbreak House runs through September 30 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. For more information: 310/455-3723; www.Theatricum.com.