Charles Leggett

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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A ‘Major’ deal with the Devil

In GB Shaw's "Major Barbara" at Portland Center Stage, good intentions and bad money duke it out on the moral battlefield. Guess who wins.

We’ve seen her type before: the Iron Matron. Imperious, but so impeccably mannered that you almost wouldn’t notice. So cunning that she’d never admit to her own cleverness. Intent on everyone doing things her way because, by god, that’s the way good people do things!

Alternately feigning helplessness, pulling strings and slinging barbs, Lady Britomart steals the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, and with the marvelous Dana Green playing the role in the production newly opened at Portland Center Stage, that amounts to grand theft.

From left: Charles Leggett as Andrew Undershaft, Dana Green as Lady Britomart, Hanley Smith as Barbara Undershaft and Brian Weaver as Adolphus Cusins. Photo: Jennie Baker

Shaw gives the character such sly wit that you excuse all the exposition she’s hauling out. Under the guise of asking her grown son, Stephen, to take charge of family matters, she fills him in on family history, meanwhile laying out for us the play’s narrative premise as if she was setting the dinner table (though of course she’d have the help do that).

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Stupid bird, damned love

Aaron Posner's contemporary riff on "The Seagull" at Portland Center Stage is prickly, passionate, profane, and loaded with love

The bird, the bird, the damned dead bird. In his great shambling masterwork The Seagull Anton Chekhov never metaphor he didn’t like, but just what the hell does this piece of bagged and bleeding flesh mean, anyway? There it flops, shot out of the air, presented as a desperate gift, and maybe it stands for Nina and maybe it doesn’t, but even if it does, what does it mean about Nina? Theater people and audiences have been arguing about it, or just plain scratching their heads over it, for 120 years.

In Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s prickly, passionate, speech-spouting, erratic, profanity-laced, and sometimes very funny contemporary riff on The Seagull that opened Friday night at Portland Center Stage, it comes out to a great big nothing: a metaphor that just lies there, heavy and inarticulate. It confuses even Connie (Konstantin in the original), the lovelorn radical-symbolist playwright who drops it at his former lover’s feet like a cat presenting a rat to its person, who understandably feels less than flattered by the offering. Like the obsessions of the play’s morose characters, it’s a big meaningless blob that nevertheless gets in the way of everything.

Katie deBuys as Nina in the play-within-a-play, with, from left, Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Charles Leggett, Darius Pierce, Kimberly Gilbert. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Katie deBuys as Nina in the play-within-a-play, with, from left, Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Charles Leggett, Darius Pierce, Kimberly Gilbert. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

That’s sort of the way things go in Chekhov’s universe of missed connections, crossed purposes and obstinate illusions among the fading gentry: ah, life, life! And still, Chekhov thought of his plays as mainly comedies. Konstantin Stanislavski, his most famous and successful director, insisted they were mostly tragedies. Posner thinks of The Seagull, at least, as a handy launching pad for momentum-busting rants on the state of the theater, the hopelessness of love, the lovelessness of hope, and other scraps from the Chekhov notebook.

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