Saturday, May 20, 2017

The House That Shaw Built

Heartbreak House -- Hartford Stage -- Thru June 11

The cast of Heartbreak House. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Well now, what do we have here: a ship of state or a ship of fools? Perhaps both, for George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, which premiered in 1920, allows for either interpretation, and perhaps several more, for the ship of state might already have foundered on the rocks of the grim reality of the inherent insanity of WWI, and the ship of fools might just be an asylum in which the deluded inmates, wearing masks, run the institution. Add in a 21st-century running joke and you have Hartford Stage’s stylish yet somewhat enigmatic production of one of Shaw’s least-produced plays. Often humorous, the play ends with a disturbing yet elegantly lit portrait that suggests modern ennui can only be overcome by a yearning for destruction and obliteration.

The Chekhovian overtones in the play are no secret, since Shaw’s script bears the subtitle: “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” What this means, amongst other things, is that we have a house that is basically a pressure cooker, the confines forcing those who enter to interact, or to act out, with each other and, in the process, reveal the mores of the society they have constructed or to which they are enslaved.

The first resident (or inmate) to be seen is Ellie Dunn (Dani De Waal) who, as the audience seats itself, is seen sitting on a love seat reading a book (it turns out to be Shakespeare’s Othello – significant if only for the misguided passions that play limns). She is discovered by Nurse Guiness (Mary VanArsdel), who doesn’t know who Ellie is. It’s quickly explained that Ellie has been invited to the house by one of its residents, Hesione Hushabye (Charlotte Parry), daughter of the “captain of the ship,” Captain Shotover (Miles Anderson). Soon others make their appearance: there’s Lady
Utterword (Tessa Auberjonois), Captain Shotover’s other daughter whom he feigns not to recognize, Hector Hushabye (Stephen Barker Turner), Hesione’s husband, Mazzini Dunn (Keith Reddin), Ellie’s father, Randall Utterword (Grant Goodman), Lady Utterword’s brother-in-law, and finally Boss Mangan (Andrew Long), whose entrance evokes peals of audience laughter (it should be noted that Connecticut’s seven Electoral College votes went to Hillary).

So the cast (passengers? inmates?), under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, has been gathered. What follows, after the necessary exposition, is a Shavian exercise in delving into various themes: a suggestion that British society, post WWI, is both effete and enervated; appearance vs. reality, for over the course of the evening just about every character is revealed not to be whom he or she purports to be; fate – do we steer our own craft through life or are we merely passengers?; the battle of the sexes (and nascent feminism) -- exactly which sex is dominant -- and the concomitant possibility that the war’s toll has left British society (and its females) with men in name only, for the best died in the trenches. That’s a lot to deal with (a sub-plot dealing with a burglar has blessedly been edited out of this production), which is why the show runs close to three hours with one intermission.

Miles Anderson
The justification for all of these characters appearing at the house is contrived at best, and the themes suggested are never truly brought to any conclusion, which means the production rises or falls on the actors’ interpretation of the characters and the director’s hand in both guiding them and moving them about, and here is where Heartbreak House succeeds.

First, the movement, which is facilitated by scenic designer Colin McGurk’s multi-level set, a evocation of a ship complete with a circular-railed prow at the front of the thrust stage that allows Tresnjak to emphasize the idea that these characters are chasing each other, with the roles of predator and prey shifting. What might have been a static placement of characters within a drawing room becomes a delightful dance with an occasional pause to allow for dramatic set-pieces.

Then, the guidance. The characters, as written, could be construed to be mere “types,” various representatives of a post-war British society that had been bled dry, but they all come to life, especially the oh-so-modern and somewhat world-weary Hesione, the apparently naïve Ellie, who is determined to be a “modern woman” and thus marry for money, the somewhat deranged (read wise fool) Captain Shotover, Hector, an artist manqué cum lounge lizard who seems to exist at his wife’s whim, and Lady Utterword who, true to her name, rules with an acerbic tongue.

The guidance can only be questioned re. Boss Mangan. A decision has been made, abetted by Jason Allen’s wig design, that dictates how Long will act the part -- for some in the audience it may be a delightful comment on current events (and some of Shaw’s dialogue seems to be painfully prescient) while for others it may be an anachronistic distraction. It certainly draws attention to itself – whether that’s good or bad is perhaps in the eye (and the mind) of the beholder. However, there’s no doubt that Long, charged with evoking a man currently in the news on an hourly basis, nails it…and it allows for a brief bit of stage business between Hesione and Mangan involving a wig that is an uproarious sight gag.

That Shaw may have been attempting to juggle a few too many themes does not take away from the stylish interpretation Hartford Stage has given to Heartbreak House. You may not always understand exactly what point is being made (I certainly didn’t -- I’m still trying to parse Captain Shotover’s final “sermon” to his gathered guests), but there’s no denying evocative acting and directorial flourishes can often trump critical analysis.
Heartbreak House runs through June 11. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to


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