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Backstage chat: What Shaw takes

Three actors in Portland Center Stage’s "Major Barbara" detail the challenges of performing the loquacious and provocative playwright

George Bernard Shaw, a quintessential man of the theater, had a very high regard for himself and only occasionally for his actors. (He did fall in love with a couple of his leading ladies, but to no particular delight to either them or him.) As a playwright/producer, he worked as the de facto director of many of his original productions, and was a rigorous taskmaster. His plays required smart actors with fine elocution, realistic craft, and impeccable comic ability.

Shaw, demanding.

And he could be scalding of actors who let him down, as witnessed by this note to the actor Louis Calvert, the original Frank Undershaft in Major Barbara: “I have taken a box for Friday and had a hundredweight of cabbages, dead cats, eggs and gingerbeer bottles stacked in it. Every word you fluff, every speech you unact, I will shy something at you. … You are an imposter, a sluggard, a blockhead, a shirk, a malingerer, and the worst actor that ever lived or ever will live. I will apologize to the public for engaging you: I will tell your mother of you.”

Any actor who performs Shaw has sympathy for Calvert, because the plays contain some of the wordiest dialogue that’s ever taken to the stage. (His prefaces to the plays are often even longer.) Written at a time when both comedies and dramas were five-act, two-intermission affairs, Shaw’s plays, uncut, can easily tip into four- and five-hour long evenings. Thanks to edits, the current production at Portland Center Stage of Major Barbara, his 1905 play about a young female officer in the Salvation Army, runs a trim two and a half hours.

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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