Battle of wits

Posted October 31, 2018

Engaging Shaw Banner 2

By Gwendolyn Rice, Isthmus | October 30, 2018

Evidently, it is easy to be charmed by an unconventional literary genius, but difficult to love one. That is the crux of Engaging Shaw, American Players Theatre’s final show of the 2018 season, running in the Touchstone through Nov. 18.

Directed with gentle humor by David Frank, the company’s producing artistic director emeritus, the play is an entertaining mash-up of historical fact, quotations from Shaw himself and playwright John Morogiello’s imagined — but definitely Shavian — rhetoric between two real people who were much too wise to woo peaceably.

We meet the irrepressible George Bernard Shaw (a delightfully changeable Jim Ridge) while he is visiting his friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb (Gavin Lawrence and Tracy Michelle Arnold) in a quaint old country house, away from bustling London. In addition to making an adorably functional couple, the Webbs are members of the nascent Fabian Society (a British socialist organization) and economists who are trying valiantly to start their own school. (You may have heard of it: the London School of Economics.)

The Webbs have philosophical conviction and a desire to bring about social change through education and advocacy, but they don’t have cash. So Beatrice combines fundraising for her school with matchmaking — trying to bring new members into the Fabian fold along with their financial support. One of her favorite development tools is her houseguest, Shaw. Charismatic and passionate, he woos eagerly and often. But he’s vowed never to marry, partly because the idea of one spouse having power over the other doesn’t mesh with his socialist views.

Ridge spends the first act of the play explaining — and reveling in — the ways he’s found to please women, please himself, achieve greatness through his writing, and remain completely his own man. His eager pupil, a fellow socialist who is also visiting the cottage, is Charlotte Payne-Townsend, played by a radiant Colleen Madden. As luck would have it, Charlotte has a great deal in common with Shaw. They meet on the road when their bicycles collide — neither of them is an accomplished rider. They are both followers of socialism, both eschew marriage and both are on Beatrice’s matchmaking list: Shaw for his wit, Charlotte for her fortune.

Before long there is an obvious spark between this unlikely pair. They are practically giddy in each other’s presence, and their facility with language makes their romantic sparring both complicated and compelling. But as Charlotte plots with Beatrice on how to manipulate the situation in her favor, Shaw employs his own proven tactics to keep long-term romantic entanglements at bay. Soon loving and hating each other in equal measure, their road to marriage is as rocky as the path that regularly throws them both off of their bikes.

Read the full review here.