Man and Superman

Shaw does go on, but Austin Shakespeare delivers a strong show with tight acting

Arts Review

Man and Superman

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 474-5664

Through March 6

Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

It should be a source of pride for Austin that this city can supply a stage full of actors capable of subtle, nuanced performances – and not just for one show but in a month when multiple shows boast strong, versatile casts. In its production of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, Austin Shakespeare creates an evening of tight performances of a challenging script.

It's challenging because it's long. Austin Shakespeare made judicious cuts to the script, and Ann Ciccolella's direction powers through the long speeches and wittier-than-thou exchanges with hardly a slow moment. Still: It's long!

That's because of all playwrights of the Western canon, Shaw loved to hear himself talk more than anyone else. The prefaces he published along with his scripts come across as almost funny in an age in which writers are taught to let the work speak for itself. In performance, Shaw's plays are like a debate between two opposing views, only with more characters and slightly more plot.

Man and Superman uses the story of a controversial writer and confirmed bachelor (Shelby Davenport) who has been saddled with the co-guardianship of a young girl who seeks to entrap him in marriage. Miss Ann Whitefield (Kimberly Adams) will lie, cheat, and bully her way to getting what she wants, and Jack Tanner – arguably a stand-in for Shaw himself – is precisely what she wants. Their cat-and-mouse game entangles their whole circle of friends and family.

Shaw also prods at this opposition between personal independence and the security of marriage in the context of class. (Just as American writers must wrestle with racism, British authors can't get away from issues of class.) Miss Violet Robinson (Jill Blackwood) has recently returned home in possession of a husband whose identity she won't reveal but who we soon discover is attempting to protect his inheritance at Violet's insistence, for, as she says, "What is the use of having money if you have to work for it?" Meanwhile, John Tanner's chauffeur (Michael Dalmon) insists on abandoning his good education in favor of tinkering with motors, and a certain self-made Irishman (Chronicle Arts writer Barry Pineo) appears with big ideas for his son's social advancement through marriage.

The intellectual parrying is great entertainment, but the emotional payoff of the play's resolution is unfortunately lacking. Adams plays the part of Ann Whitefield very capably, but Shaw has created a character that even the greatest performer would have trouble portraying in such a way that would make her appealing as a future wife. It's the lying thing; being manipulated into marriage is typically a bad sign of things to come, at least by today's standards.

Austin Shakespeare's production offers several delicious angles. Besides the good performances, Jennifer Madison's costumes are delightful (though, early in the run, certain costume pieces appeared more of a nuisance than a help), and John Aaron Bell's scene design fills the deep space of the Long Center's Rollins Studio Theatre smartly. In all, a strong show, even if the script makes it a heavy one.

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