Sometimes it's interesting to watch the audience during a performance. Friday, the people attending a pair of one-act plays by George Bernard Shaw at Gorilla Theatre seemed to be on the edge of their seats, their eyes almost glowing with pleasure, smiling and expectant about what would happen next onstage.
Actually, not much in the way of action takes place in The Man of Destiny and Don Juan in Hell. About all that happens is the characters talk. And talk and talk some more, trading speeches in a marathon of gab that runs longer than three hours, including intermission.
Yet the audience was transfixed, luxuriating in a wealth of brilliant, witty wordplay, performed by an outstanding cast. Shaw, with his unabashed intellectualism and love of language, is very much out of fashion in these post-literate times, and it was deeply satisfying to revisit his world and be shown how much fun it can be to engage with ideas, no matter how preposterous they might be.
Make no mistake about it: Shaw is often preposterous, with his crackpot belief in the Superman and the Life Force, his obsession with the battle of the sexes, his endless sniping at such favorite targets as priests, marriage and the English.
In some ways, Shaw's most powerful idea, if not the most preposterous, was his argument for the essential superiority of women. The Shavian woman _ from Joan of Arc to Ann Whitefield _ strides through theater history like an avenging angel, and he wrote great parts for female thespians of his day, such as Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Ellen Terry.
Colleen McDonnell carries on the tradition in a dazzling dual tour de force, first as the Strange Lady who twists Napoleon around her little finger in The Man of Destiny, then as that paragon of conventional Spanish morality, Dona Ana, who winds up in hell with her seducer turned philosopher, Don Juan.
Though The Man of Destiny is not top-drawer Shaw, director Nancy Cole makes it seem better than it is through brisk pacing. McDonnell's hilarious mix of hauteur and flirtation in the cause of cleverness is nicely matched by Dan Bright's portrayal of Napoleon, the ultimate man of action, as something of a thug. Steven Clark Pachosa is wonderful as a superstitious innkeeper, and Tony Valentine plays a foppish lieutenant.
Don Juan in Hell, Act III from Man and Superman, is traditionally performed as a dramatic reading, with the actors in evening dress and reading from scripts. But Shaw's Socratic debate in hell benefits from being put on its feet, even in the rather pedestrian staging by Aubrey Hampton. Patricia England's scenic design and Rick Criswell's costumes (the Devil wears a resplendent red outfit that looks like a sultan's pajamas) help keep the play from becoming too static.
Loosely based on Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, Shaw's play is a duel of metaphors. Juan (Jim Wicker) represents the Life Force upon which human progress depends, while the Devil debunks it all in his powerful "force of death" speech. The deck is stacked in favor of the Devil by virtue of Pachosa's delicious, hammy performance.
Wicker is too inward and aloof to be a persuasive rake. Instead, he's like a dithering, method-actor Hamlet.