Major Barbara

By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Robert Huppe
Jean Cocteau Rep.
330 Bowery (677-0060)
Non-union production (closes April 7)
Review by John Michael Koroly

The "Barbara" of the title of George Bernard Shaw's 1905 comedy/drama is a major in the Salvation Army. The philosophical ax Shaw has to grind in this one begins with her being caught between her fiance, a penniless academic and co-salvationist, and her father, a munitions tycoon. When the old man makes a sizable contribution to the shelter at which Barbara labors to salvage the souls of the poor and hungry, she resigns from the army rather than, as she sees it, hypocritically accept the wages of so sinful an enterprise as armaments.

And here is where Shaw's genius as a dramatist comes into play. Rather than set up two opposing views and have them flail away, he

has the father and the fiance actually form a spiritual union with Barbara. The weapons magnate, it turns out, actually has a more enlightened and progressive view of social squalor than the pious

salvationist. He sees poverty not as the result of a moral failing but as a simple state of affairs that can be alleviated with a very real solution: money! The workers at his cannon foundry are fed, housed, and educated with the money that flows from his arms trade. What taints money is what's done with it, not how it's made, Shaw

seems to be saying. Slowly, Barbara and her beau are won over, though not without comic qualification, to this view.

Although this is lesser Shaw, with the language of the disquisitions not always as winged as is usually the case, it still has many marvelous moments of Shavian romance and polemic.

The Cocteau's staging was generally quite good, but not without a few snags. Most importantly, the text may have been trimmed, but it needed more pruning ... about fifteen minutes' worth, as the show ran an even three hours. And director Robert Huppe's pacing started to drag more than once. He clearly, however, understood the script's meanings and character relationships. The trinity of Barbara, her father Andrew, and her fiance Adolphus was solidly established both through blocking and acting.

Speaking of the acting, it was generally of the high Cocteau order that's come to be customary with this troupe. In a play this talky, attention must be galvanized, and this the cast did wonderfully. As the millionaire Andrew Undershaft, Craig Smith was in fine form, bringing dimension after dimension out while remaining consistent in his lovably gruff reading. Elise Stone's Lady Undershaft was splendidly imperious in her bearing. Kennedy Brown's Adolphus had verve, emotional zest, and accomplished technique. Only Abner Genece misfired as an ungrateful resident of the shelter, all forced bluster and bile.

Robert Klingelhoefer's set design worked in its own stylized way. Suggesting, alternately, an Edwardian drawing room, the shelter, and an industrial foundry, its gray/silver tones did get a bit visually monotonous, though.

Margaret A. McKowen's costumes were lovely in their period evocation. Brian Aldous's lighting got a bit harsh at times but generally worked well. And Ellen Mandel's original music set a piquant ambiance for each scene.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 1
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sounds 2
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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