Chicago Theatre Review
A Ship of Fools
Heartbreak House – Shaw Chicago
In the final production of the company’s 23rd season, ShawChicago, under the director of Robert Scogin, presents George Bernard Shaw’s only full-length play written during the war years. Published in 1919, scholars proclaim that the prolific playwright wrote a play that depicted the cultured European leisure class prior to WWI. Shaw credited that his literary counsellors for this play were Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov, particularly in his comedy, “The Cherry Orchard.”
Shaw even subtitled his work, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” paying homage to Anton Chekhov’s influence. The playwright also observed that Europe was slowly drifting toward destruction at that time. He felt that “those in a position to guide the continent to safety had failed to learn the business of political navigation.” Thus we watch this ship of fools sailing through the choppy waters of 1917’s gathering storm. Shaw’s caricature of upper class England unbelievably resembles our own country today. The small percentage of people in power are out only for themselves, while the country is falling apart around them. In other words, everything old is really new again.
Under artistic director Robert Scogin’s characteristically wise and accomplished guidance, this staged reading of Shaw’s satire of the English class system bristles with wit and intelligence. In a symphony for the spoken voice, Scogin leads his actors through their paces with appropriate style and clarity. For those unfamiliar with this formal style of presentation, the actors hold scripts, but are completely familiar with their lines. They stand at podiums and deliver their dialogue directly to the audience, making each theatergoer an acting partner. And Mr. Scogin’s cast this time is comprised entirely of ShawChicago favorites, all accomplished actors and masters of classical dialogue. It’s a delight to see and hear them together once again.
The play opens with humor as Nurse Guinness, played by the always commanding Mary Michell, enters the darkened drawing room to be surprised at discovering an attractive, but weary traveler standing there. It’s young Ellie Dunn, who’s traveled a great distance to attend a dinner party, thrown by her new friend, Hesione Hushabye. Allison Cook magnificently inhabits Ellie Dunn, the wayward, middle class urchin, who feels like an unexpected guest. Much like Alice, Miss Dunn encounters each of the bizarre characters inhabiting this Wonderland of a mansion. She roams throughout the grand English estate, at first in awe of each character, as well as by the grandeur of this house that’s shaped like a ship. But as the play progresses Ellie becomes stronger, more sure of herself and increasingly irritated by the drivel expounded by the upper class people she meets. Their obsession with money and social position drives Ellie to make some discoveries about herself before the weekend’s over.
Ellie eventually meets her hostess, Hesione Hushabye, the somewhat ditzy lady who rules the house with an iron hand. She’s played with relish, pomposity and childish glee by the divine Barbara Zahora. When Hesione learns that Ellie’s hand has been promised to a cold businessman, Alfred “Boss” Mangan, played with dignity and bluster by Jack Hickey, she seethes with anger. Then Ellie discovers that the man she’s actually attracted to, who’s been flirting and showering her with attention, is actually Hesione’s playboy husband, Hector Hushabye. He’s portrayed with a relaxed, Clark Gable-like sensuality by Doug MacKechnie. Hesione’s prodigal sister Ariadne arrives unexpectedly. She’s played with arrogance and crisp pretension by the wonderfully talented Lydia Berger Gray. The verbal fireworks erupt as Lady Utterword and her sister Hesione rekindle old differences and begin to spar.
Eventually Ellie encounters Captain Shotover, the ladies’ elderly, eccentric and somewhat senile father, and the commander of the shipshape mansion. Played with brilliance by character actor Richard Henzel, this charming patriarch is continually looking for another bottle of rum or trying to achieve some level of psychic meditation. Ellie discovers that this elderly gentleman is more to her liking than all of the younger men showering attention upon her. After observing or experiencing so much lost love in this place, Ellie nicknames the estate Heartbreak House.
The rest of the quirky, quizzical characters include Ellie’s priggish, bumbling father Mazzini Dunn, played by Jonathan Nichols; Randall Utterword, Lady Utterword’s romantically disillusioned brother-in-law, enacted with panache by Christian Gray; and a burglar, coincidentally named William Dunn, who turns out to one of Captain Shotover’s former crewmen, and played with unbridled delight by Richard Marlatt. Stage manager Lisa Gordon keeps the production running with professional precision.
At a little over three hours, Shaw’s lampoon of the English classes is not exactly an evening of light entertainment. Its lengthy script overflows with themes that are both fascinating and contemporary. Each character represents a different social class. The journey theatergoers take with the hosts and their houseguests reveals a very different person by the end of the play than the character they originally met at the beginning. A strong belief in fate also plays an important part in this story of petty obsessions and unrequited love. Peppered with witty dialogue, this is a voyage aboard a ship of fools who simply can’t see that the world is burning around them.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 4-27 by ShawChicago 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.