Stage

Sex and Sensibility
Man and Superman. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Patrick Dooley. Produced by the Shotgun Players. Starring Kevin Karrick, Louise Chegwidden, Norman Gee, Brian Linden, Trish Mulholland, Richard Reinholdt, Curtis W. Sims, Michael Storm, and Wendy Weiner. At the South Berkeley Community Congregational Church, 1802 Fairview (at Ellis), Berkeley, through June 6. Call (510) 655-0813.

Shaw wrote Man and Superman in response to a joke: His friend Arthur Bingham Walkley had suggested he do a Don Juan play. So Shaw set out to repudiate the Catholic tenets of punishment, penance, and salvation in the original work, bending the story to his ideas on marriage, romance, art, religion, and the human condition.

Shaw accepted the idea of a Nietzschean Übermensch capable of uplifting the human race, and urged humanity to join with the "Life Force" in furthering the creation of such a being -- but the cynic in him knew he was asking for the impossible. He wrote Man and Superman expecting it to be unplayable: a witty drawing-room comedy wherein Jack Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class), descendant of Don Juan, and pamphlet-publishing revolutionary, pursues his freedom, while the charmingly unscrupulous Ann Whitefield pursues Jack. The work includes a notoriously lengthy third act dream sequence, "Don Juan in Hell," in which the playwright recast four of his players as Don Juan, Dona Ana, her father (whose ghost killed the Don), and the Devil, and has them dispute the merits of Shaw's radical reimaginings of Life, Heaven, and Hell.

Berkeley's Shotgun Players have undertaken this behemoth play of manners and philosophy, cutting it to under 3 1/2 hours. (The successful editing is by dramaturge Barry Horwitz.) The show lives or dies with the talent of its star, and director Patrick Dooley has a doozy in actor Kevin Karrick. As Shaw's Don Juan stand-in Tanner, Karrick is to the manor born, effortlessly portraying the comfortable privilege that his wealth, elite education, and flawless diction bring him. He even wears his clothes beautifully. The actor moves fluidly, gracefully, and constantly, shaking his head in disgust, stamping his foot in petulant anger, wiping a smudge left by his ward Ann (Louise Chegwidden) off his automobile, rocking slightly while curled over listening intently.

Karrick understands every line of Shaw's dialogue, and gives them passion, punctuating them with his body, his vocal inflections, and various exclamatory exhalations. He never speechifies -- which is remarkable, considering that speeches constitute most of his dialogue. Even as the title character in the philosophy-heavy "Don Juan in Hell," Karrick makes the philosophy dramatic: These are ideas that matter to Don Juan, not idle, sanctimonious sermons. Karrick is astounding.

Dooley's directing is also a real achievement: He conjures up the settings with no scenery, a minimum of lighting and props (a whimsical motorcar is the only elaborate set piece), and some very creative blocking. In the first act, as Tanner is expounding, Ann takes his hard-bound pamphlet, places it on her head, and practices her finishing-school walk, only to have the book snatched off her head by Tanner. In another exchange, Tanner accuses all women of being boa constrictors waiting to capture and squeeze the life out of men. Ann takes her feather boa and teasingly winds it around Tanner's neck.

Dooley's only real misfirings are some annoying music choices: most grievously, his selection of the opening bars of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" for guess whose entrance -- a surprising lapse given his wise handling of the rest of the piece.

The gorgeous costumes (by Clare DeShon) evoke the elegance of the '30s. Although not from Shaw's fin de siecle setting, they work for this production. The clothes appear to be the actors' own and with few exceptions the players look wonderful in them.

In the intermission after "Don Juan in Hell," an audience member suggested the four characters shouldn't have remained in the same seats for the entire discussion. But Dooley makes the right choice: The drama is in the language and in the ideas. His actors listen to each other, especially Karrick. Karrick also moves differently than the others, who are more still, suggesting that Don Juan doesn't really belong in Hell: He's made of different stuff.

The rest of the cast is fine, including Chegwidden, Richard Reinholdt -- who booms as the stuffy, stodgy Roebuck Ramsden -- Michael Storm as Mendez and the Devil, Curtis W. Sims as Mr. Malone, and Wendy Weiner as Violet. In an odd bit of double casting, Trish Mulholland is both Ann's mother and Shaw's Natural Man chauffeur Henry Straker. As Mrs. Whitefield, Mulholland has a surprising bitterness that brings her lines sting and bite, demonstrating that her character isn't happy relegated to the margins of Ann's life. As Straker, Mulholland's cockney is perfect, as is her relaxed, superior knowingness. The only weak characterizations are Brian Linden as the hapless Octavius and Norman Gee as Hector Malone. Neither can find the appropriate voice for his role.

If Man and Superman had been done by the ACT, the sets and costumes would have been lavish, the accents would have been perfect, and you'd have wanted to walk out after 20 minutes. It's wonderful to find so much talent in a small, relatively unknown theater company. The Shotgun Players deserve a much larger audience.

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