Chicago Theatre Review
A Fancied Page of History
Geneva – Shaw Chicago Theatre
Originally presented in Poland in 1938, playwright George Bernard Shaw imagined a theatrical summit meeting, supposedly intended to bring three Fascist dictators to trial. Signor Bombardone, Herr Battler and General Flanco (humorous characters based upon real life totalitarian rulers, Mussolini, Hitler and Franco) face a Judge from the International Court of the League of Nations, housed at The Hague, in Amsterdam. The room is also filled with other assorted dignitaries, including Britain’s newly elected Dame Begonia Brown, Sir Orpheus Midlander and the English Secretary of the League of Nations. Also present are a young American journalist, a Russian Commissar, a German gentleman referred to only as A Jew and a revenge-seeking, gun-toting, South American Widow.
Shaw rewrote his script several times, often adding more scenes and changing the characters, particularly the dictators, to fit the times. As WWII began to look like a reality, and Shaw’s themes seemed more topical, his play became a popular diversion in London, where it ran for almost 250 performances. But as the War continued, the playwright made even more revisions. By 1940, however, with the War taking its toll on so many lives, New York audiences weren’t amused by Shaw’s latest version of his satire and his play was declared a failure. As a result, this may be one of George Bernard Shaw’s least familiar scripts.
In Geneva, Switzerland, a secretary named Begonia Brown is the lone employee holding down the office of The Committee of Intellectual Cooperation. Already swamped with paperwork, she’s suddenly besieged by a number of individuals wishing to file grievances. First to arrive is a persecuted German Jew, followed by an angry, pistol-wielding South American Widow seeking revenge. Soon a British clergyman and a Russian dignitary burst into the office, complaining about how opposing political beliefs are destroying their respective societies. However, when the indignant minister learns he’s been siding with a Communist, he dies from the trauma. When the Jew blames a particular trio of Fascist dictators for all the world’s ills, he suggests that the International Court in The Hague be asked to conduct a hearing and try these men for their collective crimes.
Time passes, Miss Brown finds herself elected to the British Parliament, the three dictators are summoned to appear before the Dutch Judge, along with the rest of the international representatives, and the trial is broadcast to world. As the hearing comes to head, word comes through that the earth has veered from its orbit around the sun and soon everyone will perish from the cold. Allied in their efforts to solve this international calamity, all political problems suddenly seem moot; for a short time, every nation in the world unites. As everyone hurries off to his respective country, the Judge learns privately that it was all a scientific error. He ends the play, however, noting that this truce, will probably not lasting, at least offers a ray of hope for humanity, an indication of what could be possible.
Robert Scogin, ShawChicago’s brilliant, learned Artistic Director, capably leads his cast of twelve on a verbal romp through another “Comedy for Serious People.” Launching its 2015/16 season, the non-profit theatre company’s 22nd, this seldom-seen comedy is typical Shaw. Filled with eccentric characters performing linguistic acrobatics, tumbling over his delicious dialogue, this wordy play is one that benefits from Scogin’s stylized staged readings. There isn’t much physical action, so very little is lost in this type of production. Positioned before music stands, the talented cast, although thoroughly familiar with their lines, keep a script in hand for ready referral. But Mr. Scogin has instructed, coached and guided his actors well.
While every cast member is terrific, a few particularly stand out. Kate Young, a true veteran, not only of the Chicago stage, but all over the country, is riveting and absolutely hilarious as The Widow. Sporting a Spanish accent that enhances every comic moment, Ms. Young gives a performance that’s nothing short of spectacular. Begonia Brown, the young English lass who rises from lowly secretary to become a Member of Parliament, is brilliantly played by Jhenai Mootz. Ms. Mootz’s timing and reactions, both facial and vocal, increase her comic achievement trifold. As the Secretary of the League of Nations, Nick Polus is competent in a very demanding, wordy role. Both Mr. Polus and Richard Marlatt, as Sir Orpheus Midlander, portray sterling examples of the very British upperclass, stiff upper lip, and all. Both actors “Keep calm and carry on” with finesse. When they finally appear in Act II, all three dictators are well-played. Matthew Fahey’s Spanish ruler, General Flanco, is both funny and frightening. However, with considerably more stage time, Charles Stransky, as the operatically flamboyant Italian Bombardone, and Jonathan Nichols, as the grim, hard-nosed German Dictator Battler, create characters that remain memorable, long after the final curtain call.
In ShawChicago’s latest offering, Artistic Director Robert Scogin has orchestrated another of George Bernard Shaw’s witty and provocative verbal symphonies. This play especially lends itself to the kind of formal, staged reading for which this company is so famous. Less once again becomes more with just a suggestion of costuming and a hand prop or two. With grace and solid assurance, this gifted cast transports its audience from Switzerland to Holland, on just a Fancied Page of History.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 5-28 by ShawChicago Theater Company at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-587-7390 or by going to www.shawchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.