Pear Theatre’s Major Barbara Review - George Bernard Shaw’s 2016 Election Prediction

Silicon Valley’s Pear Theatre presents Major Barbara, George Barnard Shaw’s reflection on money, power, gender, religion and ethics as a ‘tip of the hat’ to the 2016 election season. We may speculate on the analogies of the characters in this early 20th century comedy to the current Presidential drama. Charles Lomax’s strong performance as Bill Walker, unemployed working class misogynist bully, with potential for redemption, who turns up on the Salvation Army doorstep, suggests how Donald Trump may have ended up without inherited wealth. Brianna Mitchell’s Major Barbara initially shows some of Michelle Obama’s strength of character but soon retreats to a more demure presence and perspective.


Briana Mitchell as Major Barbara

Brian Moriarity’s Adolphus Cusins, reconciles truth with power, moving from academic to industrial life, representing the Hilary Clinton idealist/realist, willing to moderate the expression of her ideals in order to achieve some measure of social improvement in an imperfect world. Although, capitalist rather than socialist, Andrew Undershaft’s overweening assurance of the validity of his position, articulating it repetitively and unequivocally, is Bernie Sanders in spirit if not in ideology. Todd Wright gives a stirring performance of a Victorian plutocrat whose devotion to the pecuniary potential of technology as a higher calling is echoed in various contemporary Silicon Valley titans.


(L-r) Becca Gilbert as Jenny Hill, Nicolas Muntean as Peter Shirley, Michael Saenz as Snobby Price, and Vanessa Alvarez as Rummy Mitchens

Shaw’s Major Barbara, first performed in 1905, is a parable for contemporary Silicon Valley, a “company town” rooted in military investment like Undershaft’s Victorian version.  Shaw raises the question of whether devotion to technological advance for financial gain is a worthy objective, irrespective of social consequences.   In his day, as in our own, military devices are the epitomes of high technology from which more benign devices are drawn. Indeed, the line from aerial bombing to pilotless drones is a clear one, with the enhanced efficiency of autonomous technology.  Yesterday’s deliverer of an explosive device to a reputed terrorist in Afghanistan is today’s Internet package conveyer in beta mode.


Nicolas Muntean as Morrison and Becca Gilbert as Sarah Undershaft

Lady Britomart Undershaft, played with haughty, yet humorous, aplomb by Monica Cappucini faces the classic wife’s dilemma of a turn of century divided British upper class family: how to insure that her adult children are adequately provided for when she does not have control over the family fortune to help them establish their own households.  This conundrum sets the plot in motion as a long disappeared husband is invited to visit, meet his offspring and, hopefully, provide them with appropriate livings. Since he is an armaments manufacturer and one of the daughters, Major Barbara, is a Salvation Army official, committed to the poor, sparks are expected to fly across an ideological divide, when they meet.


Michael Saenz as Stephen Undershaft and Monica Cappuccini as his mother, Lady Britomart, in "Major Barbara" at Pear Theatre

And they do, between industrialist and daughter and then between him and her fiancé, an academic who questions the ethical propriety of his future  father-in- law. Major Barbara asks whether human beings have the ability to commit to realizing ethical principles, whether embodied in religion, philosophy or literature. Can they take responsibility to change the course of human history from mutual destruction to social betterment? Or must there be a compromise in which prosperity based on military enterprise is accepted as the price of a decent income for all?


Versatile Pear actors double up on characters in this production of Shaw’s critique of morals and manners, moving from higher to lower class roles and back again in so facile a fashion that if it were not noted in the program, one would hardly know that they were the same actors. The players also perform an elegant scene change ballet, directed by stage manager Kelly Weber. Most of the rest of the play takes place in site visits to an industrial workplace with salubrious homes for its employees, and the mission’s soup kitchen and adjacent slum.


Todd Wright as Andrew Undershaft and Briana Mitchell as Barbara Undershaft in "Major Barbara" at Pear Theatre

Shaw decried the ills of an industrial system while it was going full force. The questions of whether pursuit of technology and product should be constrained by ethical consideration of contribution to public good are as salient in contemporary high-tech Silicon Valley as in industrial England. Indeed, a future production of Major Barbara, translated from industrial to post-industrial society with a Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist and Ellen Pao transposed for Undershaft and Major Barbara could be as, if not more, enlightening than the recent Lamplighters scene shift of the Mikado from Meji Japan to Renaissance Italy.


Shaw’s Major Barbara is quintessential Theater of Ideas in which each character takes a position and argues it against the others. As characters reverse their positions in  Aristotelian peripeteia,  frisson  is induced and resolved as sympathy of the audience shifts from one protagonist to another. Major Barbara, the title character turns out to be not as important in the scheme of things as her father.  Enlightened patriarchy rules in Shaw’s imagined future England, an enlightened capitalism that never happened, with the important exception of the National Health Service. Ironically, places like Bedford Square mentioned as downscale London in the early 20th century are upscale in the early 21st.


Briana Mitchell as Barbara Undershaft and Bryan Moriarty as Adolphus Cusins

The plot turns on munitions maker Undershaft matching the donation of whisky distiller Bodger’s munificent donation to the Salvation Army and the propriety of accepting funds from a tainted source. Life, sort of, imitates, art as in the Clinton Foundation’s receipt of funds from gender-challenged Saudi Arabia and more precisely in 2003 when the widow of Ray Croc, McDonalds founder, gave 1.5 billion dollars in  “junk food”  earnings to the Salvation Army. Money has no inherent morality but may be turned to any end is the situational ethics here.


Beyond economics distributional issues are questions of gender diversity and ageism: whether discarding older workers can be countenanced.  Bill Walker, the prematurely gray, forthright forty-plus something, ably played by Michael Wieland, rails at being superseded with the intensity of Michael Moore in Trumpland decrying the iniquities faced by a contemporary dumped working class.  Shaw channels anger in his working class characters that will be expressed by Brexit voters a century later.


The title character, Major Barbara, with its apposition of military title and female gender, was perhaps a bit of a shocker when this play was first presented in 1905. Between 1937, when Gallup first asked the question, and 2003, the percentage of Americans finding a female acceptable as President rose from 33 to 87%.

Women were not allowed in the British military in Major Barbara’s era, let alone allowed to attain officer status, but could hold such a rank in the Salvation Army, a Victorian evangelical Christian mission to the poor that married military forms of organization with religious enthusiasm.


Foreground: Briana Mitchell as "Major Barbara" at Pear Theatre. Background, left to right: Vanessa Alvarez, Michael Weiland, Nicolae Muntean

A moderate Fabian socialist, Shaw appears to idealize the company town with housing and services supported by a beneficent capitalist who takes responsibility for employees welfare over the middle class reformer who attempts to moderate the ill effects of capitalism at its margins.  But could such a utopia be expected to occur voluntarily, even with meritocratic succession guaranteed by choice of a foundling plucked from poverty for the firm leadership role in perpetuity?  Shaw the playwright is a Swiftian satirist; as a democratic socialist, he would surely expect his practical utopia to be realized by vote. Major Barbara’s Election Day message is Hillary for President.


For more information and to order tickets, go to the Pear Theatre website

Photo credit: Ray Renati.



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