Theatre Information

Washington Stage Guild Back to Methuselah

By • Feb 27th, 2014 • Category: Reviews, Washington DC
Back to Methuselah
Washington Stage Guild: (Info) (Web)
Undercroft Theatre, Washington DC
Through March 16th
2:35 with intermission
$40-$50/$30-$40 Seniors/$20-$25 Students
Reviewed February 23rd, 2014

In undertaking George Bernard Shaw’s massive five-part “Metabiological Pentateuch” Back to Methuselah, Washington Stage Guild (WSG) joins a handful of theaters that have attempted the marathon task over the years. For anyone fond of Shaw, or, for that matter, anyone who delights in the witty and thoughtful interplay of words and ideas on stage, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Currently, WSG is presenting parts 1 and 2 of the cycle; the other parts will be presented over the next two seasons.

It is doubtless laudable that WSG is taking on the project. But is it good theater? Happily, the answer is yes, particularly in the second half of the program. As an admirer of Shaw’s work, I sometimes bristle at the criticism that Shaw’s characters are more vessels for the expression of the playwright’s intellectual musings than living, breathing people, but the criticism may have some validity for the In the Beginning portion of Methuselah.

Set in the Garden of Eden, In the Beginning features conversations among Adam (Brit Herring), Eve (Lynn Steinmetz), and the Serpent (Laura Gianelli) as they grapple with new concepts like death and birth, fear and love, hope and certainty. Herring’s Adam is an intense fellow, brooding that his apparent immortality will be unbearable. Steinmetz’s Eve initially seems a somewhat ditzy mother of us all, but hears the Serpent’s message that the sequence of desire, will, and creation can lead to the miracle of life, if not for an individual than for the species. Laura Gianelli’s Serpent, who perhaps inevitably hisses her sibilants, is, as Adam comments, a “jolly snake.” By scene’s end, the Serpent and Adam take divergent paths, Adam for the certainty that death will bring after a thousand years and the Serpent for the uncertainty that unleashes creativity.

The second scene takes places outside the Garden, where Adam and Eve have been tediously digging the earth and spinning yarn for a few centuries. They are visited by their son Cain (Conrad Feininger), proud of his murder of Abel. Parents and son conduct an extensive debate on the merits and rightness of peace and agriculture vs. the warrior life, in which Eve — a much stronger presence than in the first scene — is the dominant force. The change in Eve from the first scene to the second is the most interesting character development in In the Beginning. Adam is a conscientious, plodding working stiff throughout, and Cain a blustery exponent of the self-justifying rhetoric of every conqueror and tyrant in history, if such conquerors and tyrants were as articulate as a character written by Shaw.

Shaw isn’t going for psychological realism: What all the characters say is more important than who they are. The actors do splendidly at not only learning their multitude of lines but of expressing their character’s points of view with conviction. It is apparent that, in casting the show, director Bill Largess determined not to worry about the relative ages of his characters. Given the content of the play, this is not a major problem though, as W.S. Gilbert wrote in a very different context, “to find a mother [not to mention father] younger than her son is very curious.”

Switch now to England, not long after the bloody wreckage of World War I. WSG has amended the title of the second piece of Back to Methuselah, called The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas by Shaw, to The Gospel of the Family Barnabas, since WSG changed the principal character of Franklyn Barnabas to Frances Barnabas, played by Gianelli in this production. The gender change is seamless, requiring only minor tweaks to the script and affecting the character’s advocacy of her ideas not at all.

Frances, formerly in the Church (granted, there were not female clergy in the early 20th century Church of England, but that hardly matters for purposes of the play), is now a sort of sociologist. She and her brother, Conrad (Michael Avolio), a biologist, having seen the destruction European statesmen had recently wrought upon the continent, conclude that the Biblical three score and ten is far too short a period for men to become wise enough to govern properly. They propose that the human life span should be extended to 300 years. Into their residence come two rival political windbags, Lubin (Vincent Clark) and Burge (Feininger), each initially seeking to entice Frances to run for a vacant seat in Parliament. The dialogue and interplay among the four, as sharp, witty and delightful as one expects from GBS, affords ample opportunity to skewer the pretensions and empty rhetoric of politicians.

Of course, the real game Shaw is playing is to provide a platform for his idea of the Life Force working its way through what he called “Creative Evolution” (see Shaw’s preface to the play for a full explanation), seeking, as Frances says, “bodies and minds ever better and better fitted to carry out It’s eternal pursuit.” While the politicians see some advantage in selling the idea of 300-year life spans to the voters, imagining “Back to Methuselah!” as a winning campaign slogan, they are flummoxed when Conrad does not provide a pill or elixir to instantly achieve the goal. No, that is up to the inscrutable Will of Creative Evolution, and, Conrad points out, “the first man to live 300 years maynt have the slightest notion that he is about to do it.”

Savvy (Nora Palka), Frances’ daughter, who delights in making inconvenient interventions in conversations, and her pleasant, sensible boyfriend Haslam (Herring), round out the cast. In a way, the cast members have an easier task in this piece than they do in In the Beginning, since they are portraying recognizable contemporary people rather than mythological constructs like Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. That said, each of the actors in The Gospel of the Family Barnabas creates a memorable individual portrait of his or her character, with Gianelli’s mix of warmth, power, and intelligence leading the list. Lubin and Burge are among Shaw’s best comic creations; one can see present-day equivalents of their muddled thinking and speaking every day in this town. Clark and Feininger master the skill of being funny by taking their characters perfectly seriously.

The modest-size stage facilities at Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church do not provide extensive opportunities for tech-heavy productions, and WSG’s menu of Shaw and other dialogue-centered plays fortunately does not require stagecraft wizardry. Making good use of the available space, Shirong Gu’s set design features several pylons with curved tops, the shape of somewhat thick candy canes. They cluster to form the tree in the Garden of Eden scene, are pushed to the periphery in the second scene of In the Beginning, and then form the outlines of a rather art deco-looking room in the Barnabas residence. Each scene has a separate backdrop, green and lush in the first scene, brown/rust colored with tangled thistle designs in the second scene, and a simple gray/white look for the Barnabas scene. Marianne Meadows’ lighting follows a similar scheme: greens predominate in scene one, light orange predominates in scene two, and blue/purple lights the backdrop in the Barnabas home. Suitable for the early days of the human race, Basmah Alomar’s In the Beginning costumes are simple and rustic, with the exception of the Serpent’s flowing, multicolored outfit featuring long hanging sleeves. The men have period-appropriate suits in the Barnabas scene, with a dash of color being provided by Savvy’s blue-green dress and Frances’ blue jacket. All told, it’s a fine job of letting the technical side of the production serve the actors and their lines.

Near the Barnabas scene’s end, Haslam notes that Burge and Lubin both had children killed in the war, commenting that “To me the awful thing about their political incompetence was that they had to kill their own sons.” The line reminded me of World War I poet Wilfred Owen’s great line changing the end of the Genesis Abram/Isaac story to say “But the old man would not so [i.e., sacrifice the ram instead of Isaac] but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe one by one.” No wonder that Shaw, writing in 1918-20, could dream of wiser leaders who, with a couple centuries’ experience behind them, could avoid such catastrophes.

Director’s Note

When George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, last season’s hit at the Stage Guild, he was at the height of his success, after a string of masterful plays written over a 20-year span. No one could have predicted in 1913 the change that would come the next year, when Europe rushed toward the suicidal madness of World War I. Shaw, with his typically remarkable insight, wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense About the War, in which he pointed out the futility and stupidity of the avoidable disaster. This was not what a jingoistic England wanted to hear—he was attacked in the press, mocked by former friends, and dropped from producers’ stages. The ferocity of it all, and the public’s sheepishly tacit admission later in the war that he’d been right all along, caused GBS to look at his work differently, and the postwar Shaw is very different that the Shaw who wrote Arms and the Man and Candida.

Heartbreak House, written during the war, is a transitional piece, and its dreamlike quality is still rooted in an essentially realistic style. But the fickleness of the British public and its vitriolic reaction to his pamphlet had the unexpected effect of freeing Shaw from caring what anyone thought about his work, and his meditations on the horror and waste of war resulted in one of the most extraordinary dramatic works ever written, a visionary, fantastic cycle of plays that explore the reasons for mankind’s failure to govern itself rationally, and that posit an unexpected solution.

Back to Methuselah is in five parts, going from 4004 BC to the present, then 250, 3000, 30,000 years into the future. It’s considered by many to be among the first works of science fiction for the stage ever written. New York’s Theatre Guild gave the plays their world première in 1922, dividing them into three evenings, but it’s rarely been seen since, given its sprawling proportions.

Shaw’s first real masterpiece was Man and Superman, produced by the Stage Guild in 1998. In that play’s remarkable dream sequence, Don Juan in Hell, Shaw first discusses the idea of Creative Evolution, proclaiming that humanity not only must develop into something greater, but must strive consciously to do so. He returns to the concept in Methuselah with the simple suggestion that since we behave like spoiled children all our lives, we must live longer if we are to accomplish what we might if we hadn’t shortened our lives since the Garden of Eden. Shaw is serious, but at the same time it is not unfair to interpret him to mean that while we can’t make that longevity happen, perhaps by willing it we can, at least, grow up a bit faster!

Besides the New York première, the cycle was done by Canada’s Shaw Festival in 1986, when the artistic director said, “It’s like Everest. It’s there, we have to do it.” As the Stage Guild approaches our 30th anniversary in 2016, we’ve decided to go mountain-climbing. But like an opera company mounting Wagner’s Ring cycle, or a film company releasing parts of a franchise trilogy, we’ll present the plays in yearly installments.

This year we present Parts 1 and 2, Parts 3 and 4 will follow in 2015, and 2016 will see Part 5. Depending on whether you count a 1997 Los Angeles mounting with unpaid actors, this is either the third or fourth professional production of the complete cycle in the Western Hemisphere. Join us on the entire journey, to “as far as thought can reach.”

Photo Gallery

Adam (Brit Herring), Eve (Lynn Steinmetz) and Serpent (Laura Giannarelli) Conrad Feininger as Burge, Laura Giannarelli as Frances Barnabas, and Michael Avolio as Conrad Barnabas
Adam (Brit Herring), Eve (Lynn Steinmetz) and Serpent (Laura Giannarelli)
Conrad Feininger as Burge, Laura Giannarelli as Frances Barnabas, and Michael Avolio as Conrad Barnabas
Vincent Clark, Brit Herring, Nora Palka, Conrad Feininger, Laura Giannarelli, and Michael Avolio Brit Herring as Haslam, Vincent Clark as Lubin and Nora Palka as Savvy
Vincent Clark, Brit Herring, Nora Palka, Conrad Feininger, Laura Giannarelli, and Michael Avolio
Brit Herring as Haslam, Vincent Clark as Lubin and Nora Palka as Savvy
Adam (Brit Herring), Eve (Lynn Steinmetz) and Cain (Conrad Feininger) Snake (Laura Giannarelli) & Eve (Lynn Steinmetz)
Adam (Brit Herring), Eve (Lynn Steinmetz) and Cain (Conrad Feininger)
Snake (Laura Giannarelli) & Eve (Lynn Steinmetz)

Photos by C. Stanley Photography

The Company

  • Michael Avolio: Dr. Conrad Barnabas
  • Vincent Clark: Lubin
  • Conrad Feininger: Cain, Burge
  • Laura Giannarelli: The Serpent, Frances Barnabas
  • Brit Herring: Adam, Reverend Haslam
  • Nora Palka: Savvy Barnabas
  • Lynn Steinmetz: Eve, Parlormaid

Production Staff

  • Director: Bill Largess
  • Setting/Scenic Design: Shirong Gu
  • Costume Designer: Basmah Alomar
  • Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows
  • Sound Design: Frank Disalvo, Jr.
  • Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie

Disclaimer: Washington Stage Guild provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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