Female Shavianism

From Mrs. Warren to Joan of Arc, George Bernard Shaw adored his strong women characters, and was fierce in his condemnation of the gender inequality in Victorian society.  His 1895 play Candida takes an interesting approach to this concern, using the situation of one man in love with another man’s wife to explore which gender really holds the power in a traditional married household.

Nick Gabriel, Julie Eccles, and Anthony Fusco in Candida. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Not that the household in Candida is a terribly traditional one. The Reverend James Morell is an easygoing socialist pastor whose schedule is cluttered with speaking engagements, and his wife is a cheerful free spirit seemingly unconcerned with the veneer of propriety.  In short, they’re Shaw’s kind of people. It’s almost a pity that he has to throw a wrench into their domestic bliss.

It’s a bright play, but seldom is it so brightly staged as it is right now at California Shakespeare Theater. Artistic director Jonathan Moscone has already demonstrated a great affinity for Shaw and his contemporary Oscar Wilde, whose plays Moscone added to the company’s repertoire in the first place when he took over. With Candida he shows not just great sensitivity to Shaw’s sparkling dialogue and heady speeches, but he really punches up the action of the play, giving it a delightfully lively staging.

Dominated by a large stained glass window, Annie Smart’s swanky set depicts a colorful Victorian sitting room with Persian rugs and a chest of toys for the couple’s conspicuously unseen children (alluded to in the dialogue but always offstage, their absence unexplained, as Shaw’s interests lie elsewhere).

Anthony Fusco’s Reverend James Morell is both clearly a kind and understanding soul and a sharp intelligence, comfortable with authority without asserting it.  That gives way to vulnerable, befuddled dignity as much of what he’s sure of is called into question.

What troubles him is idle lordling turned poet Eugene Marchbanks, a young man the couple has taken an interest in, who informs Morell than he’s in love with Candida and that such a prosaic soul as the reverend can’t love such a radiant spirit the way she deserves to be loves. Nick Gabriel is amusing and maddening in just the right balance as Marchbanks, fidgety, socially awkward and taking himself very seriously no matter how ridiculously he behaves. Costumer Anna Oliver appropriately decks him out like a disheveled dandy. Marchbanks finds it hard to look at people and he’s antsy about being touched, but his triumphant stares whenever he thinks he has the upper hand are priceless.

Happy, devoted and secure in his marriage, at first Morell laughs at the teenage poet’s florid romantic notions, but gradually the poet’s unyielding onslaught starts to fray at his nerves.

Julie Eccles is a luminous Candida, radiating lighthearted affection, which makes it easy to see why Marchbanks became so smitten with her. She enjoys his besotted attention but doesn’t take it seriously, unaware of the testy exchanges about her between the two men.

Sporting some sweet muttonchops, Jarion Monroe is delightfully boorish as Candida’s industrialist father Mr. Burgess, who complains about being forced to pay his workers a living wage that they won’t know what to do with. A last-minute replacement for Nicholas Pelczar, who had to bow out during technical rehearsals, Liam Vincent is awfully amusing as the seldom seen Reverend Lexy Mill, Morell’s naive and loyal acolyte, and Alexandra Henrikson sports a combustive temper as Morell’s seemingly prim and no-nonsense typist Proserpine Garnett.

The play runs two hours with two intermissions—quite short by Shaw’s standards, but staged in its intended three acts. There’s a lot of witty dialogue in the play, as when Morell chides Burgess not for being a scoundrel but for pretending to be otherwise, but it also does the job emotionally as well as intellectually in this production. It’s hard not to get frustrated not just with what an ass Marchbanks makes of himself (in a manner familiar to anyone who’s ever been a teenager) but with Morell for allowing himself to get roped into feeling like his in a competition for his own wife. By the time the stirring speech comes around about how women are the stronger sex, it’s already been amply demonstrated in the shenanigans of the play.

Through September 4
Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way
Orinda, CA

Show #75 of 2011, attended August 13.

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