The set-up: Inside literary lion George Bernard Shaw's philosophical comedy Man and Superman (1903) stands a dream scene unlike any other. Now known as Don Juan in Hell, it's officially Scene II of Act III, lasts about an hour and a half, and is a complicated, intellectual debate between Don Juan (James Walter), the Devil (John Kaiser), Juan's former paramour Dona Ana (Lisa Schofield), and her father, the Commander (H. Brandon del Castillo), slain by Juan while defending his daughter's honor. The lengthy scene can stand alone and is usually cut from the full-length production or presented as a concert reading, as is given by Houston's newest theater company, Edge Theatre. Edge's artistic director and director of its Houston premiere is Jim Tommaney, who writes about theater for the Houston Press.
The execution: Much enthralled with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's theories of the Superman, Shaw, in his own indubitable fashion, turned the German's lofty moralizing into a condemnation of England's hypocrisy and cowardice, using his linguistic flair and biting wit to make his thrusts. Shaw loved causing a stir. He inverts our standard preconceptions: Don Juan is rather priggish and argues he was more pursued than pursuer; Hell is full of art and love, not death and torture, that's left to man up above, says the Devil smugly. And Heaven is filled with thinkers, not doers, it's dour and sterile. Under Shaw's rippling banter, all points of view get equal weight. This is a play to really listen to -- to enjoy, in part, for the very sound of it.
Sitting at music stands with scripts, in front of an expressionist flaming heart seemingly contained inside a box -- a neat little metaphor for Shaw's theories -- the cast handles Shaw's curlicue logic, perfectly tempered prose, and stylish cleverness with moderate success. Kaiser and Schofield, old pros that they are, juggle Shaw's somewhat turgid themes with a jaunty air, creating characters where not many hints exist. You can tell by their eyes, always reacting to what's said, that they're constantly listening. Kaiser is clearly enjoying himself, employing an attitude of immense devil-may-care; Schofield sculpts Ana, whose piety on earth shouldn't place her in hell, into a late-blooming Life Force, where biology trumps intellect. Dark and handsome, Walter is picture-perfect as a libertine, but at times Shaw's convoluted prose gets away from him, although he sails nicely through his aria about the denizens of hell (i.e., Britain) not being what they seem. The Commander is a statue come to life, and Castillo, sitting ramrod straight, blusters through the role without much finesse.
The verdict: As a real rarity among Shaw's performed works, this Don Juan in Hell, though not the most heavenly, is filled with more than enough of Shaw's devilry to make it a must-see. No Shaw at all would be hell, indeed.
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Through August 6. Midtown Art Center, 3414 LaBranch. 832-894-1843.