Under New Management

 

The changes are noticeable from the minute visitors walk into the lobby of the Missouri Repertory Theatre, now under the artistic leadership of Peter Altman. The banners that once hung from the ceiling to advertise upcoming shows are gone, coffee prices have doubled, and someone thought to obtain a catering license — booze flows where soft drinks once prevailed.

But what matters is on stage, and, after months of debate and worry about what Altman could do for Kansas City, may we propose that Kansas City do something for Altman? The Rep’s debut show under his wing, George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, is terrific.

Written in 1905 but as timely as Gore versus Bush, Shaw’s comedy professes to be the last — or at least the loudest — word on class and privilege. And morality and religion. And war and peace. Hell, it’s about a lot of things and is as crisp and biting as the latest Mamet play.

The events begin in the tasteful library of Lady Britomart Undershaft (Tanny McDonald). She’s the kind of socialite whose face instantly becomes a prune when she is confronted with vulgarity. Then there are her children: Stephen (Greg Jackson), a petulant 24-year-old; Sarah (Molly Jo McGuire), the quiet middle child with a fumbling boyfriend (Antony Hagopian); and the title character (Jennifer Erin Roberts), a major in the Salvation Army.

When their father, Andrew (Dan Kremer), who hasn’t lived with his family for so long he doesn’t recognize his own children, returns home to iron out some money issues, Barbara and the ruthless industrialist are immediately at odds. Her benevolence and utter faith cannot — yet — be reconciled with the blood money on her family’s palms. He’s in love with war, and it has served his bankbook well: Undershaft’s company makes cannons, guns, and every other kind of ammo. War, to Papa, is the grease that keeps England great. Barbara lays down the gauntlet that provokes the rest of the play. She challenges her father to come to see her world, one of hungry paupers doomed by drink. But she must, in kind, see his — the local munitions plant that looms atop the city like a sphinx.

The West Ham Shelter is the first stop. There, a handful of beggars are sopping up the last of the watery soup. Local actors Kathleen Warfel and Mark Robbins play, respectively, Rummy Mitchens and Snobby Price, who are so down on their luck they’re almost prostrate on the floor. Another pair, Peter Shirley (Kim Sullivan) and Bill Walker (Raphael Peacock), soon enter the yard; the latter, a belligerent ass, calls up all of Barbara’s resources. His soul is so damaged, the salvation of several armies wouldn’t make a dent. When Mr. Undershaft arrives and is challenged to lay a big check on the operation, the real challenge goes to Barbara: Will she take his tainted money to feed her flock?

“All our money is tainted,” Shaw wrote in a preface to the play, “(which) gives a very severe shock to earnest young souls.” It’s the same dilemma a couple of earnest young souls named Al Jr. and George W. now face daily. What would it mean to pocket a big wad from Smith & Wesson? Or Philip Morris? Or, in Al’s case, Steven Spielberg? The moral of this tale is clear: You close your eyes to the source and drink it up; whatever goodness results can be deftly rationalized. Barbara’s transformation is no different except for the intelligence at its core; she’s been royally played by a very smart man. Her father convinces her that not one soul would have been saved were it not for a childhood bathed in the lap of luxury.

Directed by Michael Bloom, Major Barbara is a triumph of acting and design. The Barbara role could so easily come off as whiny and preachy without someone as steely as Roberts playing the part. Even in her 20s and adorned in lace, she’s a formidable opponent to Andrew Undershaft, exquisitely played by Dan Kremer. And although these two stand out, each actor in the production has his or her moments — even Gary Neal Johnson in his dozen or so lines as the confused butler (who could be the grandfather of the cranky stage hand Neal played in The Rep’s Master Class in the spring).

Russell Parkman’s set designs rank among the finest ever seen on The Rep’s stage. For the library, he dwarfs the actors with a subtly curved panel of books 25 feet high; all this erudition rising to the stratosphere and still the arguments bend on prayer. The shelter is grimy and foul, missing only a rat or two to scurry across the stage. But the final scene is the topper, where the Undershafts gather on the roof of the factory and have to maneuver around crash-test dummies with targets imprinted on their chests. Oversize bullets are rolled in to serve as benches, and a huge, phallic cannon rests stage center. All this Plexiglas and silver implicitly remind us that these debates are as modern as yesterday’s media merger.

Categories: A&E