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February 29, 2008

Solomon and Shaw

Roy Meachum

George Bernard usually precedes the headline's "Shaw," as if the three words are irretrievably wed. The famous playwright receives as handsome a homage as he's ever been awarded currently at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. As you will read, I was thoroughly delighted with "Major Barbara," which opened at Washington's Sidney Harman Hall this week.


Alas, no "king" emblazons the modern "Solomon," I mean first to celebrate. Although if the Bethesda Theatre's crowd the other night could have bestowed the high-faluting title, Steve Solomon might have wound up with a crown beside his hotel bed. For about 90 minutes he was the lord and monarch of the audience he surveyed.


He calls the evening "My Father's Jewish, My Mother's Italian and I'm in Therapy." With your eyes closed, his one-man show becomes a virtual grab bag of exotic sounds and collection of characters whose different voices flow and ebb. Sometimes his Italian and Jewish sides quarrel with each other.


All by himself, Mr. Solomon trots forth his life's all-star cast in a truly virtuoso comedic performance. There was plenty of applause, lots more laughter; the audience seemed to be cackling and guffawing most of the time, to the point of tears flowing down their cheeks. He's that funny.


"My Father's Jewish, My Mother's Italian and I'm in Therapy" rollicks around the Bethesda Theatre the next three weeks. A warning is in order: Be prepared to laugh your insides right out. It's that simple.




Vivienne Benesch as Barbara Undershaft and Karl Kenzler as Adolphus Cusins in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Major Barbara,” directed by Ethan McSweeny.  Photo by Scott Suchman.


Much more complicated is any work by George Bernard Shaw. Every literate pun is covered in raucous humor inevitably disguised in the social aptness of the Irish writer's days. Each director who approaches the Shavian mind must wrestle with how very much he loved to talk.


"Major Barbara," my favorite work in his repertoire, is a solemn lecture disguised in wit and intellectual "fencing." Director Ethan McSweeny has mastered the art of gloriously overcoming the playwright's penchant for "bon mot." Called shtickla in the world of theater, his "busy-ness" enhances Mr. Shaw's verbal flow. Hurrah!


In everything he does, the director profits from a superb cast that not only "speaks the speech" and "walks the walk" but looks positively Edwardian, as they should. There are outstanding performances at every turn. To list the names would require naming virtually every actor. The big roles are cast with "big" actors but the small parts are handled no less impressively. The costumes, makeup and lighting enhance all.


As with every Shakespeare Theatre Company's production, "Major Barbara" benefits from the house Artistic Director Michael Kahn created, with lots of other people's help. The newer Harman Center for the Arts comes equipped with the next generation's embellishments after the company's original Landsburgh Theatre, and so it goes.


George Bernard Shaw's words have never sparkled better than presented in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's current booking. By coincidence, "Major Barbara's" run ends the same night as Steve Solomon's tour de force, on Sunday, March 23. They are both major events for anyone who loves the stage; I do.



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