Soul Salvation

Shaw's witty 'Major Barbara' offers strong performances and visual ravishment, while 'The Hostage' is tough yet flawed

Who will save your soul?

Long before Alaskan waif Jewel yodeled the question to her audiences, George Bernard Shaw’s very non-waiflike Major Barbara was issuing it forth like a battle cry.

Who will save your soul? The cannon or the canon?

Kissing to be clever: Benesch and Long
Kissing to be clever: Benesch and Long

The timing of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Shaw’s 1905 Major Barbara is uncanny. As presidential hopefuls fill the front page with disagreements over the right way forward — the military or the oratory, faith or financial salvation — the stage of the Sidney Harman Hall is filling with the same debates.

A stiff upper-lip comedy set in British society, Barbara (Vivienne Benesch) is a devoted officer in the Salvation Army. Both she and her sister are engaged to be married. But the girls are also the daughters of the wealthy ammunition manufacturer Andrew Undershaft (Ted van Griethuysen). Because of the perceived immorality of the family business, Andrew has been separated from the family for some 20 years and has had no contact with either his daughters or his only son.

This lengthy estrangement is set aside by the family matriarch, the Lady Britomart Undershaft (Helen Carey), when her concern over the relative poverty of her daughters’ fiancés proves stronger than her moral objections.

Visually, Major Barbara is a stunning production. American Theatre Wing Design Award winner James Noone has crafted sets which have the look of exquisitely detailed paintings. From the thickly veined marble and tapestry soaked drawing room of Lady Undershaft’s home to the gritty brick courtyard of Major Barbara’s East End Salvation Army shelter, Noone’s work is outstanding. Noone has given Director Ethan McSweeny’s cast a vivid foundation on which to work.

MAJOR BARBARA
starstarstarstar
To March 23
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St. NW
$23.50-$79.75
202-547-1122

By and large the cast makes the most of the opportunity. Carey is outstanding in her role. She exhibits impeccable comic timing and is never unlikable even while playing the most vicious member of the Undershaft family.

Van Griethuysen and Benesch also bring strong performances to the stage. Given characters that are similarly headstrong, principled and unyielding, the actors finesse their individual roles to compliment one another rather than simply clash. They are well matched in talent and generous sensitivity.

There are some troubles with members of the play’s supporting cast. Andrew Long’s accent as the bullying East Ender Bill Walker is so muddy that most of his dialogue fails to reach the first row. In terms of the ensemble, he is not alone in this struggle.

In their turns as Stephen Undershaft and Barbara’s fiancé Adolphus Cusins, Tom Story and Karl Kenzler offer thin performances, both relying on the wit of the material rather than making the same serious character choices as their fellow cast members.

But these issues are more distractions than deal breakers. Major Barbara may not ultimately save your soul, but she’ll offer you a good night of theater.


THE HOSTAGE
starstar
To March 29
Church Street Theater
1742 $Church St. NW
$25-$30
703-892-0202

Who knew that an evening full of beer and wonderful Irish music and bawdy loose women could prove to be so little fun?

Though, to be fair, Brendan Behan’s The Hostage isn’t really a ”fun” show, and the folks at The Keegan Theatre well knew that as they revived their 2003 production. The word ”enjoyable” isn’t even appropriate when trying to discuss the play. ”Interesting” is too dismissive and ”thoughtful” isn’t even in the right neighborhood. So let’s settle on ”tough.” The Hostage makes for an altogether tough evening in which there is little fun.

Set in a 1958 Dublin boarding house/brothel and against the backdrop of the hanging of an 18-year old IRA member, The Hostage is a rowdy mix of music and politics.

The show’s lynchpins are Teresa (Carolyn Agan) and Leslie (Joe Baker). Leslie is a British soldier captured by the IRA and held hostage in the boarding house. Teresa has recently come to the house to work for Pat (David Jourdan) and his wife Meg (Sheri S. Herren) as a housekeeper. It gives nothing away to say that Leslie and Teresa fall in love.

Originally written in Gaelic by Behan — who served in both the Republican youth movement (Fianna Eireann) and participated in IRA activities — The Hostage has a loose and improvisational feel to it. The line of separation between stage and audience blurs and solidifies without a moments notice. Songs are integral to the play’s construction but hardly make the work a musical.

Jourdan is an affable and magnetic host and is ably supported by the powerful presence of Herren. The two have strong singing voices and easy, natural stage manners. They melt quite comfortably into their roles.

But there is too much clutter for the audience to find their bearings and appreciate the playwright’s work or the play’s message. Director Mark A. Rhea has excessively filled the theater and over choreographed his cast. These decisions compromise all of the show’s elements.

George Lucas’ set includes a perplexing upstairs area that is often filled with stray members of the cast going about other business. They smoke and read, they look out the false windows and sleep with their clients. But their presence is ultimately a distraction from the main stage. The Church Street Theater is a small space and neither Lucas nor Rhea appreciated the final impact of such a large set or such extensive peripheral action.

In spite of its obvious volume and vigor, The Hostage also offers ideas upon which the audience is meant to contemplate. The Keegan Theatre production offers no room for reflection which renders all the bluster into nothing more than the noise of an overcrowded bar.

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