George Bernard Shaw Explodes Middle Class Morality
by Barry David Horwitz
Bernard Shaw is back, and he’s alive and hilarious at Aurora Theatre. Aurora’s revival of Shaw’s unique blend of brilliant comic characters and sharp social critiques in “Widowers’ Houses” put us on the edge of our seats for three wonderful acts. Superb direction by the incomparable Joy Carlin and her cast of swiftly paced, outrageous Victorian types brings it all home.
In a delightful and richly appointed setting of Victorian splendor among the upper classes, Carlin and Set Designer Kent Dorsey have created an outdoor veranda in sunlight on the Rhine, a rich landlord’s elegant paneled library, and a luxurious period parlor to send the comedy soaring.
In three sumptuous scenes, backed by huge and beautiful projected etchings from the London streets, full of carriages and crowds, come these elegantly dressed, formal Britishers, whom Shaw loves to caricature. In all their stuffiness and superiority, we get to laugh non-stop at the self-important book-licker (hilarious Michael Gene Sullivan), as he ingratiates himself with the eager Dr. Trench (rubber-faced Dan Hoyle). Aurora even gives us a couple of enjoyable brief intermissions to savor the humor and ideas.
Cokane tries to tame the lustiness of the young doctor, just graduated, but has little luck. Dan Hoyle’s anxious and insatiable Trench is a wonder to watch, as his expressions change instantaneously from desire to surprise to outrage. He is matched at every step by the deeply determined Trout, as a Blanche (demure and demanding Megan Trout) who holds her own, continually springing surprises.
But side-kick Cokane makes a slippery go-between for Trench and the haughty object of his courtship, the forceful Blanche. Dr. Harry Trench and Blanche Sartorius are secretly serious about their love affair. All that stands in their way is her funny formal father, Mr. Sartorius (ramrod-straight Warren David Keith). Keith does the absolute finest re-incarnation of a stilted, censorious Sartorius, all buttoned up to the neck in his severe formal long coat. He brings the house down with his patronizing and condescending manners!
The one outsider, the guy who blows the whistle on the pretentious middle class, the shabby worker who collects the rents for his employer, Sartorius—is none other than the slimy Lickcheese (uproarious, magnificent Howard Swain). Lickcheese blows the whistle on his boss. Swain deserves every award in the book for his degraded Lickcheese. Later on, Lickcheese is transformed—in a fur-bedecked costume that steals the show along with Swain’s comic genius.
Ah! but Shaw raises one big obstacle: What happens when you “Follow the Money”? Like a good socialist, the always reliable comic genius George Bernard Shaw follows the money when marriage looms.
The money comes from investments in shady property, exploiting the poverty of those who live meagerly in London’s slums—and so, Shaw’s game is on. How will Trench deal with the exposure of his future father-in-law’s deep pockets? How will Blanche and Trench deal with even more revelations about their own incomes?
Shaw takes us all, since the very first outraged audience in 1892, hostages—to our own hypocrisy. In this, his first play, he pulls no punches and starts a new wave of honest comic revelations. And each of these actors makes it delightful—in delicious costumes that bespeak each character, in perfect settings, with breakneck self-exposure and hilarious honesty.
How does Sartorius defend and debate his investments? How does Dr. Trench receive the news? Who else is involved and how “respectable” is their income, finally? There are many in’s and out’s and explanations and condemnations—each one a delicious comic indictment of present day exploitation, gentrification, and self-dealing.
Sounds a lot like where we find ourselves, today, with our own Sartoriuses and Lickcheeses running the show! But Shaw and Carlin offer a lot more style and many more laughs. “Widowers’ Houses” is a gem.
“Widowers’ Houses” by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Joy Carlin, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, through Sunday, March 4, 2018. Info: auroratheatre.org
Cast: Michael Gene Sullivan, Dan Hoyle, Sarah Mitchell, Warren David Keith, Megan Trout, and Howard Swain.