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East House's production ofHeart-break House was not quite bad enough to set George Bernard Shaw rolling in his grave. But then nothing could be; Shaw was cremated.
Certainly, however, East House does little to enhance Shaw's long, difficult, and extremely complex drama. Heartbreak House consists of one part cheerful irrelevancies, one part the disillusionment of Ellie Dunn, and one part allegory. Most of the time, the irrelevancies are wound around Ellie's awakening and her spiritual marriage to Captain Shotover. At selected intervals, however, the script in effect announces, "And now--back to our allegory." The transitions are strained at best, and the East House production does not ease them much.
But this is perhaps the most difficult task Shaw's play presents, and one could readily excuse the East House cast for not accomplishing it. The many other shortcomings of the production do not put one in a forgiving mood, however. Take Friday night's first act, of which a small portion follows (you must remember that the windows of Agassiz auditorium have been left open):
Ellie (in great distress): I dont's know what to bee-YOW vooma VOOMA. Please, may I speak to HONK whirr leave me. I can't bear it.
Mrs. Hushabye: Be off Hecputput putputputputPUTPUTPUTPUT putputput.
Hector: Not THIS one: I'll TELL it to YOU after DINNER. I think YOU'LL LIKE it. THE TRUTH is, I MADE it UP for YOU, and was looking FORWARD to the pleasure of TELLING it to YOU. But in a MOMENT of IMPATIENCE at being TURNED OUT of the ROOM, I THREW it AWAY on your FATHER.
Ellie: It was not OOGAoooga. He believes beepity beep beep. I should NEWKA NEWKA NAL it KRASH.
The extraneous noises were about two-thirds Garden St. traffic and one-thirds Garden St. traffic and one-third backstage foul-ups. Hector's strange speech patterns, as elucidated by Donald Lyons, are without known cause. It may seem a pointless quibble to mention the surface noise; but Heartbreak House is not the first play ever given in Agassiz, and it is the height of sloppiness not to know the auditorium's accoustical possibilities and impossibilities by opening night.
There are more serious flaws, however, including an almost total lack of directing. At the play's end, when the planes are flying over Heartbreak House and bombs are falling, the East House show crumbles right before your eyes. The play proceeds at an agonizingly slow pace until the final scene; then it races at breakneck peed over important and meaningful lines. The actors overact and over-scream consistently throughout most of the play; then there is an almost total lack of noise of excitement when the bomb falls. The bomb itself hits with a ping, instead of with a shattering roar. In short, the terrifying final scene that shows the horrible picture of Europe's "moths flying into the candle" comes off as low comedy.
The most movng writing in Heart break House is found in the occasional philosophical musings Shaw inects into the conversation--for example, the exchanges between the Captain and Ellie in Act II ("You are going to let the fear of poverty govern your life; and your reward will be that you will eat, but you will not live").
Unfortunately, the effect of most of the best writing in the play is lost, because the actors, especially the men, insist one emoting their way through these passages. Instead, they should quiet down, and concentrate on what they are saying. What is called for is not visceral emotion, but rather intellectual feeling. These philosophical statements do not emanate from the character of the protagonists or from the action on the stage; they are impersonal truths that Shaw wished to have read into the record.
Jacqueline Tabachnick, as Hesione Hushabye, handles these passage well, especially her speech at the end of Act I. She does nearly everything else well, too; her scene with Ellie and the sleeping Boss Mangan is the show's finest comic moment. Susan Schwartz (Ellie Dunn), Pat Fay (Lady Utterword), and Joseph Boyd (Randall Utterword) are competent performers, who only occasionally suffer lapses of concentration.
As 88-year-old Captain Shotover Alexander MacMillan struggles manfully with a nearly impossible assignment. Although he has moments of effectiveness, he often overacts, and he does not convey the impression of age. Mr. Lyons (Hector) can not fit his irascible, humorous manner to the serious lines he has to deliver, but when he is supposed to be funny, he frequently is.
W. M. Schwind, Jr. (Boss Mangan) has absolutely no idea what he is supposed to be doing on the stage, but I suppose it is not his fault, but rather director Charles H. Flowers'. Mangan the irresponsible, somewhat inept industrialist, is perhaps not the cigar-chomping, slave-driving type. But Schwind's Mangan was far too foppish, and the five or six accents he tried all reverted to the original pseudo-Exeter Academy.
East House deserves credit, at least, for trying such a difficult play for its first production. But by the time the planes fly over Heartbreak House near the end of the play, everyone knows the bomb dropped three hours ago.
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