THEATER

Review: Washington Stage Guild's 'Press Cuttings,' 'Augustus Does His Bit'

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 10, 2009

There is a solution for handling dissenters that authorities rarely utter out loud, but it's spoken repeatedly and with great comic gusto in George Bernard Shaw's satirical "Press Cuttings." It's the early 20th century, suffragettes are teeming in London's streets, and General Mitchener of the British War Office knows what to do: "Shoot them down!"

It's the general's go-to answer, of course, and John Lescault -- playing Mitchener as a kind of English forerunner to loony Buck Turgidson in "Dr. Strangelove" -- finds an impressive variety of ways to deliver the line. This bit of one-act "tomfoolery," as Shaw called some of his short high-spirited pieces, boasts considerably more elaborate language than that, and so does the other politically impudent one-act in this twinbill, "Augustus Does His Bit."

The Washington Stage Guild has paired these together as "Strange Bedfellows," and the witty, energetic result shows that the company still knows what to do with urbane, idea-rich scripts. Working at Catholic University's Callan Theater (the troupe has been itinerant for a number of years now), designer Marcus Darnley slaps a large painted Union Jack on the floor of the stage and a droll portrait of Shaw over a fireplace mantel; it looks like the puckish playwright is peering at us through the frame.

The rest is in the actors' hands -- or rather, on their tongues, for either you can speak a speech that's full of policy parodies and precisely timed verbal grenades, or you can't. Director Bill Largess has rounded up a cast that's happy to carry on in the old-fashioned way, and the assured performers make virtues of haughty bluster and cool comeuppance.

Lescault sets an amusingly explosive tone; his Mitchener has the confidence and carriage of the ruling class, which naturally means that when order is threatened, steam practically comes out of his ears. "Press Cuttings" is set in an imaginary future in which martial law has been imposed on London, with the protesters of the women's movement being the government's chief rowdy targets. Naturally, figures from this wing of the debate crash into Mitchener's War Office sanctum, with Laura Giannarelli playing a gloriously imposing firebrand named Mrs. Banger and Helen Hedman showing a lovely light touch as a dainty lady with a pistol so heavy it swings her around the room as she points it.

A good deal of the dialogue is inside baseball, as Shaw aimed his peashooter at the figures of the day, so "Press Cuttings" may be mainly for Shaw enthusiasts. "Augustus Does His Bit" seems more evergreen, with the Augustus of the title being a government nincompoop manning his office in time of battle.

The actors in this one look like they could have stepped out of the funny papers. As Lord Augustus Highcastle, Vincent Clark has the dark suit and waxy black mustache of a pompous bureaucrat, while Alan Wade, playing a catch-all clerk, has the bedhead and red nose of a drunk. It's sort of a one-note joke, but then neither of these occasionally hectoring plays has the satisfying depth or dramatic shape of top-notch Shaw.

Still, the situation is ripe for governmental bungling -- the evening's theme, after all -- and a smooth society lady (Lynn Steinmetz) becomes a convenient emblem for the evening: a thumb Shaw amusingly sticks in the eye of the body politic.

"Strange Bedfellows: 'Press Cuttings' and 'Augustus Does His Bit,' " by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Bill Largess. Costumes, William Pucilowsky; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Clay Teunis. Through Oct. 18 at Catholic University's Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Call 240-582-0050 or visit http://www.stageguild.org.


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