Terrific performances spark Infinite Jest Theatre Company’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara under Branda Lock’s assured direction. Sets and lighting may give the production a rather low-end look, but some particularly fine work by Samantha Barrios, William Reinbold, and Graciela Valderama (among others) make it worth your while to catch Shaw’s bitingly comedic, still relevant look at religion and war and wealth and poverty and morality in all their shades of gray.
You might think you were watching Oscar at his most Earnest in Major Barbara’s deliciously Wildean first act, one that introduces us to Salvation Army zealot Barbara Undershaft (Barrios), her Lady Bracknell of a mother Lady Britomart (Valderama), her hoity-toity sister Sarah (Caroline Day), the siblings’ respective (and equally ineffectual) fiancés Charles “Cholly” Lomax (Doug Mattingly) and Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (Reinbold), their wishy-washy younger brother Stephen (Kevin Shiley), and most significantly, the Daddy Warbucks husband their mother kicked to the curb decades ago, munitions tycoon Andrew Undershaft (Daniel Muller), who intends to follow a seven-generation tradition by passing down the family business, not to Stephen, but to an abandoned orphan as yet unknown.
Much laughter is mined from Lady Betomart’s bossy ways (she absolutely refuses to sit until Stephen has set down her favorite cushion) and from Andrew’s utter cluelessness about the family he left behind when he got given the heave-ho. (He not only mistakes Sarah for Barbara and both of their fiancés for Stephen, he couldn’t tell you how many Undershafts he fathered if his life depended on it).
A visit to Barbara’s Salvation Army home-away-from-home introduces a whole new set of characters for Shaw to poke fun at including down-and-out shelter regulars “Snobby” (Shiley), “Rummy” (Valderama), and Peter Shirley (Muller) along with a thuggish intruder named Bill Walker (Mattingly) set on exacting revenge on gung-ho volunteer Jenny Hill (Day), whom he accuses of having “recruited” away his girlfriend “Mog.”
It’s only after having seduced us with laughter that Shaw gets down to the business at hand, and that is to pit Barbara’s idealism with her father’s more pragmatic view of the world.
It turns out that Major Barbara’s converts may be in it simply for the food and lodging and not, as she has assumed, for their eternal salvation. Later, when a day trip to the postcard-perfect town built by her father’s “factory of death” reveals a well-provided-for populace with no need for Barbara’s Army, our heroine’s self-assurance is further weakened, and even more so when she discovers that the same “tainted” money that has afforded the town residents a comfortable life will soon rescue her beloved shelter from its financial woes.
Things do get talky once Shaw gets down to Shavian philosophizing. Still, folks don’t see a GBS play for snappy one-liners (we’ve got Neil Simon for that), and if you don’t mind having to pay close attention to some very wordy chatter, a splendid cast will reward you for your concentration.
Barrios makes for a starchy, spunky, fiery Barbara opposite the dashing Reinbold (having great fun playing scholarly against leading man type). Valderama nails both Lady Bretormart’s pretentions and Rummy’s coarseness, and her male counterpart Muller stands out too both as wealthy pragmatist Andrew and as prematurely weathered Peter. Mattingly and Day play opposite ends of the spectrum quite marvelously as well, with Pete Pano, Shiley, and Michele Shultz rounding out the ensemble in fine fashion. (The cast’s English accents are generally spot-on, so much so that much of the Cockeys’ chitchat ended up Greek to me.)
Emily Brown-Casera’s period costumes and Collette Rutherford’s props are both topnotch (director Lock has updated the play’s original early-1900s setting to the ‘30s, the post-WWI timeframe lending adding relevance to Shaw’s themes), and sound designers Edward C. Esau and Mattingly provide just right musical underscoring during scene changes.
Still, a less blackbox-basic scenic design than Hester Russell Krog’s and a more sophisticated lighting design than Bruce Starrett’s would give the production a more professional look.
A couple of herbal cigarettes get chain-smoked to gratuitously bothersome effect.
Starrett is assistant director. Esau is stage manager, dramaturg, and light and sound board operator. Sri Chilukuri is assistant stage manager.
Recent events make George Bernard Shaw’s 121-year-old play more relevant than ever. Some absolutely fabulous performances make Infinite Jest Theatre Company’s Major Barbara a June-July treat.
Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.
June 24, 2106
Photos: Richard M. Johnson