I looked forward to seeing Man of Destiny and Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw, two comedies I had read several times and admired extravagantly, but had never seen produced. Shaw is noted for his delight in paradoxes, and for his wit in deflating the pretensions of humankind in general, and especially for his relish in skewering the British, and all these virtues are very much present in these two one-act plays.
In the first, General Napoleon Bonaparte trades witticisms in a spirited debate with a woman posing as a military lieutenant, and in the second William Shakespeare himself exchanges ripostes with no less than Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. The stakes are high indeed, with a master playwright tackling some of the great personages of history.
Expectations stayed high for a while, as I admired the beam and plaster set, designed by L. Robert Westeen, indicating a French country inn, as Napoleon was served dinner by the inn-keeper, played by Michael Geiger in a captivating and charming performance. Geiger delivered the expected deference to his eminent guest while retaining his own authority as a home-spun philosopher, and Geiger is perfect in the role.
Brandon Hobratschk plays Napoleon, and has elected to (or been directed to) portray Napoleon as a man without subtlety, who barks orders in a voice unnecessarily loud for a country inn -or for the comfortably intimate surroundings of Company Onstage. His lines contain delicious wit and sophisticated paradoxes, but Hobratschk seems unaware of this, and plays him as a parade-ground sergeant substituting volume for inner authority.
Yet hope hovered, as Brian Heaton entered as a Lieutenant, written to be gullible and dense, imbued with a sense of his own importance, and gifted with a devout piety for the code of chivalry. Heaton is excellent, and finds rich humor in a persuasive performance. He exited, and Dani Luers entered as the final character, a lady unknown to Napoleon, who had in her possession a packet of letters she had bamboozled from Heaton's lieutenant.
Luers has good reactions, and an energetic girlish charm, and might be admirable in a different role, but is totally miscast as a quick-witted intellectual. The plot requires her to re-appear as the male lieutenant who had conned Heaton out of the letters, and if Luers made any attempt to deepen her voice or affect a swagger to aid the masquerade, it was invisible to me - I saw the same coquettish mien. The lost opportunity for humor looms here like K-2.
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The second play also has a casting flaw, but delivers in spades as Brian Heaton plays a ribald Shakespeare, on the prowl for an assignation, who accosts a sleep-walking Queen Elizabeth, without her retinue. Will here is largely bereft of vocabulary, is quick to appropriate the apt phrasing of another character, has a bad memory and no sense of rhythm - this simply adds to the fun. No one plays a romantic courtier better than Heaton, and his portrayal of Will as an everyman bumbler is amusing and delightful, and had me laughing aloud.
Michelle James plays the intended amour for Will, and is beautiful enough for us to see why he would brave the darkness and bribe the warder (Michael Geiger) for her. Dani Luers plays the Queen, but fails utterly to find any regal authority. Jim Allman directed -- this is his first time directing at Company OnStage - and the serious miscasting of Luers in both plays reminded me of Mike Nichols' comment that casting is 80 percent of success, and correcting casting mistakes an additional 10 percent. Yet Company OnStage is to be commended for reviving two witty treasures from a theatrical master. The verdict:
Two strong and delightfully amusing plays, rarely produced, are here paraded for review, and are well-worth seeing. One delivers the intended delicious humor, and one falls short through inadequate performances, along with some masterful ones.
Man of Destiny and Dark Lady of the Sonnets continues through April 13, at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. For information or ticketing, call 713-726-1219 or contact www.companyonstage.org.