Marathon Man and Superman pushes cast and crowd to the limit
Having never been to the Olympics, I don’t know what it’s like to see firsthand an athlete break a world record or do something physically astounding. The closest I’ve come was probably Saturday at the Shaw Festival.
After 30 years of coming here, I’ve never seen anything like what Gray Powell did in a six-and-a-half-hour production of Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” with the rarely performed third act, “Don Juan in Hell.”
After two hours, I was amazed. After three, was astounded. As he passed the four-hour mark, I could barely believe what I was seeing. It does not feel like hyperbole to say what Powell does in this play is virtually superhuman.
To break it down, the six-and-a-half hours of this long-awaited production includes a 70-minute lunch and two 20-minute intermissions. The actual play runs over four-and-a-half hours. Of that, Powell is in nearly every scene and probably speaks for three hours of it, including long rants as only Shaw could write them.
So impressive is Powell here that he got the biggest response when he finally flubbed a line near the end. After a quick attempt to correct himself he chuckled and said, “I’m not repeating it.” The audience loudly cheered — he’s human after all.
Powell has long been one of the company’s most reliable leading men, but no show he has done even approaches this, even other Bernard Shaw plays. “Man and Superman, with Don Juan in Hell” is an endurance test as much as it is a play. It’s justifiably being presented as an event this season at Shaw, limited to just 17 performances. And it earns its ‘big deal’ status — there are few companies in the world that could stage this. The audience at Saturday’s opening knew they were witnessing something special.
Which isn’t to say “Man and Superman” is Grade A Bernard Shaw. It hits many of his familiar, tedious beats, and its wafer-thin plot hardly warrants a 90-minute play, much less one that occupies your entire day. But this goes beyond the play itself — at some point, it’s a marathon you’re just gawking at. The play isn’t nearly as impressive as the talent and energy
it takes to perform it.
In many ways, this is no different than watching an extra-inning ball game or binge watching an entire season of a TV show. And when it’s over, when the exhausted audience stands up to applaud, the cast is applauding back. Everyone’s in this together.
Serious Shaw buffs have salivated over this since it was announced. The “Don Juan in Hell” scene is cut from most every production of “Man and Superman” and performed as its own standalone show (it was done at the Shaw’s first season in 1962).
Adding it is audacious, tacking two more hours onto an already long play. It’s certainly a tall order for director Kimberley Rampersad, the company’s intern artistic director, who valiantly keeps the show’s energy flowing by giving these actors the spacious floor of the Festival Theatre with a simple but effective set.
Powell plays revolutionary rascal Jack Tanner, who has been named as one of the co-guardians for the enigmatic Ann (Sara Topham). The play presents them as an early 20th-century Sam and Diane from “Cheers” — two completely opposite people who will inevitably end up together. Of course, Shaw could never commit to a story that simple — there are long, looooong debates about the merits of marriage, money, class, religion, the usual Shaw targets. It continues into “Don Juan in Hell,” a dream sequence which becomes a much different play in its proper context — Don Juan is supposedly an ancestor to Tanner, and his rants echo his descendent.
And this hell isn’t what you expect — it’s a place people are allowed to be as they wish and is actually less boring and stifling than heaven.
Naturally, Don Juan tests the nerves of the devil, played like a cool landlord by Martha Burns. The “intolerable length” of his speeches is turning hell into … well, whatever’s worse than hell.
The “Don Juan” sequence comes right after the lunch break and is two gruelling hours — a show within the show. At this point, it’s hard to believe there’s still another act to go, but as Don Juan says, “Since you’ve endured so much, why not endure it to the end?”
This is the Shaw pushing itself — and the audience — to the absolute limit. It’s long, it’s costly, but it’s a marathon you can’t help but marvel at. See it just to say you survived it.
Powell has long been one of the company’s most reliable leading men, but no show he has done even approaches this, even other Bernard Shaw plays.”
Sara Topham and Gray Powell star in the Shaw Festival's mammoth, six-and-a-half hour production of “Man and Superman,” with “Don Juan in Hell.” It's at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 5.