Theater

'Shaw's Shorts': They Still Fit

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Did William Shakespeare cadge some of his best lines from Queen Elizabeth I?

And was he -- rather than the perspicacious genius we imagine presiding sagely over human experience -- a bumbling Bertie Wooster sort with a sex drive as robust as the Spanish Armada?

Those are just two of the provocative conceits fired off in "Shaw's Shorts," a buoyant, intellectually stimulating showcase of brief George Bernard Shaw plays mounted by the Washington Stage Guild.

Over the past two decades the Stage Guild has made a minor specialty of Shaw's oeuvre. This new production, cannily directed by John MacDonald, exploits the humor and quicksilver braininess of two minor pieces, "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets" and "O'Flaherty V.C.," turning them into apt accompaniments for the delightful one-act "The Man of Destiny."

Thematic timeliness justifies the program still further: "Dark Lady," though little more than a glorified vignette about the Bard, ties in nicely with the Shakespeare in Washington festival. The other two comedies deal with jingoism and war, debunking myths about patriotism and courage with a cool panache reminiscent of Shaw's "Arms and the Man."

The night's opening piece, "The Man of Destiny" (1896), embeds its philosophical insights in an ingeniously plotted tale about Napoleon's rise. When the haughty Corsican (Michael Glenn) meets a suspiciously well-informed adventuress (Kathleen Akerley plays the character, known simply as the Lady), the encounter becomes a hilariously twisty battle of wits.

MacDonald creates a mood of enjoyable absurdity by allowing his actors a few moments of slapstick -- Chris Davenport indulges in some particularly zealous hamming as the Lieutenant, a blustering nincompoop who's unable to sheath his ridiculously long sword without help from the innkeeper Giuseppe (Jeff Baker). Akerley's rendering of the Lady, though, is less than credible: Her amused, worldly manner seems affected, and it feels as if she's waiting for her next line, rather than existing in Shaw's reality.

Akerley fares better as a perky servant girl in the 1915 skit "O'Flaherty V.C." Written after authorities asked Shaw to assist with the World War I recruitment of Irish soldiers, the playlet is far less boosterish than one might expect. "I don't know about its being a great war, sir," the title character, a recipient of the Victoria Cross medal, replies skeptically to his commander. "It's a big war; but that's not the same thing."

Glenn's laid-back boyishness as Pvt. O'Flaherty sharpens the poignancy of this message, while Baker chips in ably as a patrician general, and Lynn Steinmetz is hilariously peppery as the title character's mother.

Switching thematic gears but maintaining the witty profundity, "The Dark Lady" (1910) gives us a Queen Elizabeth (Steinmetz) whose dry, imperious demeanor recalls Judi Dench. Baker has funny moments as an unwittingly poetic Beefeater guard, while Akerley plays straight woman as the Dark Lady. Davenport clowns around drolly as the oafish Shakespear, but he's suitably eloquent during the character's moving plea for royal support of the theater. "This writing of plays is a great matter," Shakespear explains ardently to his sovereign.

Audiences at the Stage Guild's diverting, surprisingly topical production will be inclined to agree.

Shaw's Shorts ("The Man of Destiny," "O'Flaherty V.C.," "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets") by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by John MacDonald; setting, Carl F. Gudenius and Keri Schultz; costume design, William Pucilowsky; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Clay Teunis. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through April 1 at 1901 14th St. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit http://www.stageguild.org.


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