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Losing Our Religion

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A SHAVIAN EVENING

Avenue Theatre

The Serpent: Love. Love. Love. Adam: That is too short a word for so long a thing. --George Bernard Shaw, In the Beginning

George Bernard Shaw wasn't an irreligious man, though there are surely plenty of self-styled Christians who would find him so. His best-known and most-performed plays are social satires, some of them naughty and even shocking in their day; but when he addressed worldly themes like prostitution, free love, and women's rights, Shaw was trying not to escape spirituality but to find a better way to it--a way that took into account human nature. Writing at a time when the theories of Freud and Darwin were startling and controversial, he worried that religious dogma that denied modern insights into the soul was rapidly losing its hold on the world. "I knew that civilization needs a religion as a matter of life or death," he wrote in his 1921 preface to Back to Methusaleh; surveying faithless, decaying Western society 70 years later, it's hard to say he was wrong.

Back to Methusaleh was Shaw's epic attempt to express Christian thought in the age of evolution; in five plays he traced an imaginary, imaginative mythology of humanity from the prehistoric past to the far future. Shaw's insistence that the five plays were inextricably linked, coupled with the inconsistent quality of the plays, has kept the Methusaleh cycle from being produced with the regularity of such popular items as Pygmalion and Mrs. Warren's Profession.

The Avenue Theatre has decided to take a risk with In the Beginning, the first play in the cycle. The risk is reduced a bit by the fact that the production was already finished when Avenue picked it up: Andy Callis's staging of Shaw's philosophical comedy about life in Eden had been unveiled in March at Bailiwick Repertory's directors' festival. Even so, little-known Shaw isn't exactly surefire box office. It would be a shame if this worthy and interesting production failed to reach an audience.

Written between 1918 and 1921, In the Beginning is a distinctly unorthodox portrayal of Adam, Eve, and that God-damned Serpent. Eschewing traditional elements of the tale--the eating of the fruit of knowledge, for instance--this one-act focuses on the first man and the first woman in their first encounter with death, in the form of the limp body of a fallen fawn. What if that should happen to me someday? Adam wonders in horror; but even more terrifying is the possibility that it won't happen. "I like you," he tells Eve, "but I do not like myself. . . . And yet I must endure myself, not for a day or for many days, but forever. That is a dreadful thought."

Enter the serpent, with a message of relief from the drudgery of eternal life. Not your garden-variety ser- pent, she teaches Adam and Eve some fascinating new words--like "born" and "death," "immortality" and "procrastination," "certainty" and "chance." She flatters and coaxes them into awareness of their own potential--and their limitations: "You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?'" And she whispers to Eve the secret of conception--which, in a funny joke that emphasizes the play's date, makes Eve cry in disgust. (Perhaps the serpent paraphrased the Victorian adage and told poor Eve to close her eyes and think of Eden.)

In the play's second half, now- ancient Adam and Eve debate with their son Cain the value of heroism and humility, death and life, creation and destruction. Cain may have invented murder; but, he reminds his parents, it was they who invented death.

Filled with language whose passion and intelligence is simply unrivaled by any contemporary writer, In the Beginning ends on a hopeful yet strangely tentative note meant to prod the viewer's interest in what was to come. Yet the play stands by itself as bittersweet philosophical comedy that speaks to contemporary turmoil as it did to the devastation of World War I. In a very funny stroke, Callis has outfitted Adam and Eve as Woodstock-era hippies--without mucking with the language at all, thankfully. Paul Friedrich's Adam--with hair hanging to his ribs but balding on top--looks the perfect commune dropout, as does Jennifer Picken's rose-print granny-gowned Eve; Mat McGinnis is their warrior son, clad in the skin of a horned animal and outfitted with primitive shield and sword; Katherine A. Klein's serpent is a gigantic comic figure out of a street-theater performance, lovably yet weirdly costumed by designer Berry Gustafson, who also made the funky neo-primitive screen paintings that set the scene.

Rounding out "A Shavian Evening" is another production first mounted at the Bailiwick directors' festival--a truncated version of Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty's stage adaptation of the 40-year correspondence between Shaw and Stella Campbell, the actress for whom he wrote the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. Compressed from two acts to one in order to fit into an hour's running time, Catherine Davis's staging focuses on Shaw's growing obsession with Campbell, a celebrated star of pre-World War I Britain, and his aborted effort to undertake an adulterous affair with her (he was married; she, a widow, was already courting her next husband). Their friendship--despite periods of anger and silence--lasted far beyond their embarrassing near-encounter; love was indeed too short a word for a relationship as long as theirs.

Though it makes a suitable companion piece to In the Beginning, this trimmed-down Dear Liar never really takes off on its own. Davis's cuts rob the audience of the sense the full-length play creates of the rich complexity of Shaw, Campbell, and their feeling for each other. And Deborah Dwyer and Joe Kearns never rise to the virtuosic level that Kilty had in mind when he concocted his theatrical arrangement of these vivid, witty, tempestuous letters. Written originally for himself and his wife Cavada Humphrey (its first draft was written in Chicago, when the Kiltys were acting at the old Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts Building), and most famously played by Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne, Dear Liar is a showpiece for performers who can handle its mercurial emotional range and the high style of its flamboyantly temperamental characters as well as the impression of aging over several decades; as directed here, Dwyer and Kearns are simply out of their depth. Still, there are occasional glimpses of the marvelous characters and their tempestuous and touching relationship; and In the Beginning is a rare find that makes "A Shavian Evening" well worth a thinking theatergoer's time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Curtis Osmun.

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