If imagination is the beginning of creation, imagine a world where human beings could choose the length of their lives, creating for themselves an eternity of knowledge and power. Would you choose to live forever? Or would the notion of living forever, an immortal existence overwhelm the mind and force the imagination to create death? In George Bernard Shaw’s rarely done epic play, Back to Methuselah, Washington Stage Guild (WSG) explores these notions in a riveting and compelling stroke of drama. Broken into three parts and performed over a series of three seasons, WSG has undertaken a massive project with the production of this seldom produced Shavian epic. A strikingly intriguing piece of theatrical history that will unfold in Washington over the next three years, this is an extremely rare chance to witness the production of the play in its entirety.
Director Bill Largess, the company’s current Artistic Director, makes a bold choice with this production because of its enormity not only in length but in the magnitude of the subject matter. A thought-provoking piece of the Shavian canon that ultimately presents the notion of human immortality as an active choice and status that may ultimately be achieved again; this ingenious theatrical endeavor will enthrall audiences, fascinating them to follow the series through to its completion in 2016. Largess is asking a great deal from his audience to commit to such a notion, as the average person seldom looks that far into their own futures, but it is a commitment that once the first part is experience, shying away from will become rather difficult.
Largess’ artistic vision is fully articulated in the first of three pieces in this finely honed, albeit verbose, work. The company of actors assembled under his direction displays a thorough understanding of Shaw’s work and how to accurately deliver the dialogue heavy production. In today’s society the attention spans of the average theatergoer, or even the average human being, has waned significantly from what it once was, and the prospect of sitting through two hours of a text heavy performance might seem intimidating or even droll. But Largess’ company of actors masterfully delivers these heavily worded speeches with vim and vigor; creating action in their words that ensnares the audience into their drama.
The notion of spectacle is all but removed from such an epic, allowing the performers and the playwright’s words to speak in their purest form. Set Designer Shirong Gu, Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows, and Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. work together to create a minimalist effect of simplistic beauty and ease that subtly augment the performance that occurs around their creations. It is the delicate nuance of these design elements that allow for Shaw’s work to radiate in theatrical resplendence; performers grasping the audience’s attention in with the inflection of their delivery rather than a flashy set piece or drastic shift in lighting.
The first half of this installment of the piece, entitled In the Beginning, features just four characters. Adam (Brit Herring) and Eve (Lynn Steinmetz) find themselves alone in the Garden of Eden, as so many stories of creation being, and the explorative nature of immortality develops from that springboard. Herring and Steinmetz’s characterizations of the original biblical couple are curious and yet genuine in their approach to the pair’s naivette. Coupling this ignorance with inadvertent developmental intelligence the pair creates a dynamic depth for the duo. Herring evolves a high-strung approach to the Adam character, letting his emotions flow raw and unwavering during moments of outburst and frustration. Steinmetz does an exceptional job of balancing the eager curiosity and crippling fear of the Eve character so that they blend and function as one woman rather than dividing her with a favor for one over the other.
Appearing only in the second half of the first part is Cain (Conrad Feininger). With a brutish nature, Feininger embodies the wrath of Cain so often referred to, and delivers a series of blustering monologues that are imbued with a growling ferocity. His thunderous approach to even the mildest of spoken moments defines his character in the same vein that Cain has invented murder. Feininger is a commanding presence on the stage, outdone in his existence only by the Serpent (Laura Giannarelli) who appears only in the first half of the first part. Giannarelli is mesmerizing with her performance as the serpent; the garden’s original evil. Portraying a titillating wordsmith is a challenge that Giannarelli rises to and soars over with vivaciously sinful colors. Her cadence and accent has the audience hanging on her every word, sensuality and enchantment dripping from every phrase she poses. There is something wickedly delicious about her enigmatic existence; rapture surging through her voice with an electric pulse.
Giannarelli serves as the matriarchal figure at the head of the Barnabas family in The Gospel of the Family Barnabas, which arrives on the stage after the intermission. While her serpentine nature has been coiled into the recesses of characterization, the enthusiasm with which she portrays this intriguing woman has not only remained but grown exponentially. Divulging a great deal of dialogue in this half of the performance, Giannarelli displays her mastery over Shaw’s words; a true delight to witness.
Opposite Giannarelli, as the voice of scientific reason, is Michael Avolio playing Dr. Conrad Barnabas. Avolio’s character is a much more subtle instance of the driving notion of immortality and human longevity. There is something to be said for Avolio’s understanding of slightly sarcastic wit which he infuses into the little barbs and exchanges he shares with Savvy (Nora Palka) the wayward portrayal of youthful ignorance in this production. Palka adapts a blasé attitude which is more than fitting for her character’s lack of sincere knowledge; a perfect reflection of the plots driving point that without centuries to develop the human mind we as humans are woefully uninformed.
It is the appearance of Joyce Burge (Feininger) and Lubin (Vincent Clark) that motivate the second half of this performance. Appearing as two dueling political figureheads the witty repartee that is exchanged between the two of them provide a healthy dose of humor to this otherwise intrepid and potentially controversial subject. Feininger and Clark play exceptionally well together, each building on the other’s wind-bagging tactics and throttling little pistol spurts of energy at one another all the while attempting to gain the support an interest of those on stage.
Washington Stage Guild’s Back to Methuselah is fascinating. There is a myriad of reasons to see it, and here is a unique and rare opportunity to experience this hidden Shavian gem.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Back to Methuselah, Part 1: In the Beginning, and The Gospel of the Family Barnabas plays through March 16, 2014 at Washington Stage Guild— performing at The Undercroft Theatre — 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at 240-582-0050, or purchase them online.