Arts & Events

Theater Review: Heartbreak House Takes Shape at Live Oak

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday February 02, 2011 - 12:48:00 PM

Heartbreak House, a comedy Bernard Shaw began writing before the First World War and finished after war's end, is playing now at Live Oak Theater, an Actors Ensemble production directed by Robert Estes. Shaw called it "a fantasia in the Russian manner, on English things"--and fingered Chekhov's plays as an inspiration to write a comedy with a sting in its tail about the leisure classes of Europe in the build-up to the holocaust that lit up from the tinder of their studied obliviousness in 1914. 

"Chekhov's plays being less lucrative than swings and roundabouts, got no further in England, where theaters are only ordinary commercial affairs, than a couple of performances by the Stage Society. We stared and said How Russian. They did not strike me in that way ...” 

Shaw, in his show of unity with other artists around Europe in their anatomy of their societies, made a great leap forward in his art. 

If Chekhov's comedy is usually sentimentalized, or reduced to a sketchy kind of thing out of a sitcom, Shaw has been shrunk to fit as well. Berkeley Rep produced Heartbreak House, a few seasons back, with the effect of a screwball comedy. Shaw was after bigger--and more theatrical--game, in that theater can be the live arena to enact--and talk out--society and the times. He created a play with characters who explain themselves, shamelessly self-conscious, even burlesquing themselves and each other, obviously influenced by a playwright of whom he disapproved: Oscar Wilde. These knowing denizens of the stage can also speak as orators, debaters and storytellers, lending exposition and argument to issues above and beyond the plot or their own interest in it. It's something Bertolt Brecht, a devotee of Shaw's plays early on, would carefully note and carry further. 

At Heartbreak House, no one's more self-reflective than the oldest and most eccentric, seemingly half-senile Captain Shotover (Jeff Trescott), the host--though a host aloof from his own party. An inventor, the Captain has built his family's retreat with the gains from military devices, war materiel ... the whole existence of this nest of peaceful frivolity balances on what will whisk it away. 

A young lady comes visiting (Taylor Diffenderfer as Ellie Dunn), befriended by one of the Captain's daughters, Hesione Hushaby (Michele Delattre). So the audience sees the flaunted and various eccentricities of the household and its other guests at first through her eyes--until her own very knowing proclivities--and those of her father (Matthew Surrence as Mazzini Dunn)--come out. She's fallen for an older man--the self-styled Player King of the bunch, Hector (Stanley Spenger)--yet intends to marry one yet older, financier and philistine Boss Mangan (Keith Jefferds). Arriving in the midst of it all is haughty Lady Utterword (Amaka Izuchi), nee long-lost Shotover sister Adriane gone parvenu; her brother-in-law, Randall Utterword (Brian McManus), another guest making a grand entrance, then an utter fool of himself--and a marauder, as W. C. Fields would've said, played by Joseph O' Loughlin, yet another meta-professional egotist, with hidden ties to the Shotovers--and their down-to-earth retainer, Nurse Guinness (Lynn Sotos). 

It's not an easy play, but one that should relentlessly go forward--and all kinds of sideways--on its own genially mad logic, which rotates every character and situation 180 degrees (at least), or pulls them all inside-out ... remaining clueless at the great catastrophe which befalls them all, and Humanity, at the end. 

"Every drunken skipper trusts to providence," says Captain Shotover. "But one of the ways of providence with drunken skippers is to run them on the rocks." 

The Actors Ensemble production, a courageous thing, started out a little rocky on opening night, but soon some vivid--and very funny--characterizations of these self-assured loons began to take shape. The second act found the whole show taking off, finding its wings, as a second act should. The third act, starting out by moonlight, with the denizens of Heartbreak House rearranged into a strange set of couples, was a little lax; it begins quietly, but mayhem--to flute music!--overtakes it. 

This was at the start; it's now going into its third weekend. It's energizing to see a small local company serve the script so engagingly--community theater at its best, fulfilling its mission. Estes has found his cast; they all deserve a lot of credit. In particular, opening night, Keith Jeffries outdid himself with a complete personification of the awful--and awfully funny--Mangan. Matthew Surrence had a good physically comic turn. And Taylor Diffenderfer captured perfectly the precociously self-serving Ellie. 

Jerome Solberg produced and designed the set, William Curry the costumes, Alecks Rundell the lights and Steve Jemera the sound. Gian Banchero painted the backdrop. 

There's been something of a Shaw revival--a glimmer, anyway--the past few years. This is a show to see, to get an idea what it's all about. And to give a good community production a hand for what they're trying to do--and doing remarkably well at. 

A play about Shaw from letters to and from Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Dear Liar, will be presented in a staged reading one night only, Tuesday, February 13 at 8, directed by Vicki Siegel (assistant director for Heartbreak House). 

Fridays, Saturdays at 8 (Sunday, February 13 at 2; Thursday, February 17 at 8) through February 19, at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck, in Live Oak Park. $12-$15. 649-5999;