As far as our theaters go, the year's most popular political figure is turning out to be . . . Napoleon Bonaparte. The Kennedy Center has already given us two looks at the man--Edward Sheehan's ill-fated drama, "Kingdoms," and Abel Gance's spectacular silent film, "Napoleon." Now the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring has come forward with George Bernard Shaw's "Man of Destiny," in which the Little Colonel ends up sounding a lot like Shaw himself.
This is not Shaw's finest effort, nor is the curtain-raiser, a brief farce entitled "Augustus Does His Bit," which Shaw wrote to entertain the British troops during World War I. But the Round House is showing commendable originality in reviving the rarely seen pieces, and the acting in most instances is sound. Although the company is composed largely of young, non-Equity actors, the Round House has made considerable strides this season toward becoming a solidly professional organization. It is not yet in the regional theater league, but it has long since graduated from the ranks of community theater.
"Man of Destiny" is saddled with a contrived plot about an alluring young woman who has managed to steal a package of letters and dispatches destined for the young Napoleon. Heady from his triumph at Lodi, Napoleon must summon all his wiles simply to get the correspondence back. In the meantime, Shaw has him discourse on the nature of heroism, the English, fear, scruples and history. The discussion doesn't make for theater, it makes for discussion, as is usually the case with Shaw. But both David DiGiannantonio (Napoleon) and Greta Lambert (Shaw calls her character The Strange Lady) keep the talk alert and bright.
By the same token, in "Augustus," a farce less written than tossed off, Thomas Schall gives a spirited performance as a fatuous aristocrat whose ineptitude has won him the post of recruiting officer in the hamlet of Little Pifflington. He, too, tangles with a mysterious lady (Lambert again) who's after a list of anti-aircraft defenses. But this time, Shaw is content merely to ridicule the stupidity of the upper classes.
The sets and costumes for each play have been responsibly executed. And what is distinctly encouraging about the staging of Jeffrey B. Davis is that it doggedly strives to make the scripts work on their own terms, even when Shaw isn't doing his share of the work. The Round House used to settle for simpler plays and easier solutions. Increasingly, it has taken on ever bigger challenges.