REVIEW: Major Barbara (Quintessence Theatre Group, PA)
Stellar performances abound in this flawed production of the George Bernard Shaw play.
The idea that humanity is either inherently good or inherently evil has been plaguing mankind since the dawn of time. It is an argument that philosophers have spent their entire lives pondering, and while many have had their opinions on the topic, there is still no "one size fits all" approach to morality. That complexity of morality is at the heart of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. While the merits and flaws of Shaw's play continue to be discussed, the production at Quintessence Theatre Group finds itself with its own merits and flaws, particularly the contrast of engrossing performances and confusing theatrical choices.
Ground Control to Major Barbara
Major Barbara is filled with an extremely talented cast of actors. Leading the charge as the titular character is Melody Ladd who imbues Barbara with a fire and intensity that makes her fully captivating right off the bat. She navigates the complexities of her character with grace, and while the character comes off selfish, it is never at the expense of Ladd's natural charm and charisma. Matching her at every beat is J. Hernandez as Adolophus Cusins. Cusins is Barbara's partner, who is head over heels in love with her. Hernandez fills him with a wild absurdity and frenetic energy that sets him apart from the rest of the ensemble. Their chemistry together is electric, making the scenes they share a highlight of the show, including the somewhat immersive prologue showing their first meeting.
The rest of the cast also turn in wonderful performances. Paul Parente and Marcia Saunders are wonderful as the parental figures of the piece. They both have magnificent stage presence, and some of the best dialogue in the play. Gabriel W. Elmore also shines doing double duty as the nebbish brother-in-law, and a man conning the salvation army. He arguably has some of the funniest moments of the show, but never overplays them to steal too much focus.
While the performances are very strong, there are several confusing choices that were made that hinder this production. The show has a prologue, and while that in itself is fine, the choice to perform that ten minutes before the ticketed curtain time is an odd one. Audiences were notified of this prior to the performance (albeit only the night before), but many attendees were still walking into the lobby during these opening moments. The show has a rather long runtime of over three hours, so i can see why there would be a want to start the show early; however, this setup made the initial experience of the piece frenetic and confusing, when an earlier show time would have been a much simpler solution.
Director Alex Burns does a great job of keeping the pace, so the three hour length never really drags. However, the show suffers from a few conceptual confusions. The biggest one is the costuming, which is rendered in modern attire, but the script and language are clearly routed in the turn of the 20th century. This leads to a slight disconnect of where and when this play is taking place. There were also projections that appeared more distracting than assisting: the choice to put the exchange rate of 1905 British currency into contemporary US dollars also added to the confusion of when exactly this show was taking place.
Oh, the Humanity!
Shaw's play occasionally feels a touch repetitive, as the struggle of what is right/wrong, and the argument he is presenting, tends to unfold in a primarily binary way. Only in the last half-hour does he start to explore the idea of what lies in the shades of gray morality, but it's mired down in some peculiar character moments. All of that aside, where this show succeeds is in its performances, which make the intense runtime move by rather quickly. Unfortunately, the slew of distracting choices elsewhere in the production causes major confusion, so that even those invigorating performances aren't enough to be true salvation.
Major Barbara is on stage now (and in rep with No Exit) at Quintessence Theatre Group (7137 Germantown Avenue)
until October 29th, 2023.
Tickets and information can be found at quintessencetheatre.org.
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