Marathon Man and Su­per­man pushes cast and crowd to the limit

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Arts & Life - John.Law@ni­a­garadailie­s.com 905-225-1644 | @JohnLawMe­dia

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.”

EMILY COOPER SHAW FES­TI­VAL

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.

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