Chicago Theater Review: MR. SHAW GOES TO HOLLYWOOD (MadKap Productions at Greenhouse)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 17, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Here’s what we know for sure is the background for MadKap Production’s Midwest premiere: In 1933 Nobel laureate and, in his own estimation, the greatest writer in the world George Bernard Shaw and his dutiful wife Charlotte Townsend Shaw embarked on a self-declared “world tour” that took in Hollywood—that is, after a near disastrous plane landing in the Malibu fog. After getting a lift from a passing college student (hardly a triumphant entry), the Shaws encounter assorted Tinsel Town celebrities, mostly from MGM. These nabobs lavishly entertain and cajole the popular and prestigious playwright, hoping for the rights to–and parts in–his works. Those adaptations, it’s assumed, will give respectability to a genre mired in vaudeville-like musicals and frothy “talkie” comedies where the only issue at stake is how many feet are on the floor during a bedroom scene.

Anita Kallen as Charlotte Townsend Shaw, Rob Ibanez as Clark Gable, Cat Hermes as Marion Davies, and William Chamberlain as George Bernard Shaw

But for Shaw, an alien amid this artifice, the movies were better off when they were silent–since it was the pictures that persuade, not the screenplays. He dismissed Hollywood as a kind of reverse Pygmalion: Where the Greek sculptor transformed a statue into a woman, the dream factories turn real people into statues.

Playwright Mark Saltzman specifically based Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood on a revealing photograph he came across. It shows Shaw at a studio luncheon impishly gazing at the likes of Marion Davies (mistress to publisher William Randolph Hearst and a would-be screen goddess), the great Clark Gable, and mogul Louis B. Mayer. The Americans look uncharacteristically glum, even numb. You wonder—and Saltzman does for two acts and 130 minutes—just what G.B.S. did to these notables to make them so strangely serious.

Vignettes, which take us from the Pacific Coast Highway to Hearst’s fabulous bungalow amid the 22 soundstages, depict a culture clash between the sardonic and cynical playwright, socialist in his sympathies and misanthropic in his style, and the go-getter capitalist overachievers of Culver City.

William Chamberlain as George Bernard Shaw

Saltzman brings many pots to boil as he shows Marion (Cat Hermes as an ex-Ziegfeld girl who wants the firmament) unsubtly auditioning to play Eliza Doolittle in the first film version of Pygmalion. A bumptious Hearst (Tom Cassidy) intrigues against the scheming of Mayer (Michael D. Graham) to give the lead to box-office biggie Norma Shearer. Meanwhile, Mayer works overtime to force Gable to return to his wife and give up his affair with Joan Crawford. John Barrymore (David Belew) gets drunk on 80-proof tea with Mrs. Shaw (slyly demure Anita Kallen) and spars with Shaw over the sage’s pooh-poohing Barrymore’s London Hamlet for cutting the script to smithereens. We hear an apocryphal anecdote about Anne Harding’s clash with G.B.S. at the studio canteen over an unlicensed production of Arms and the Man. A peppy UCLA student (Jonathan Helvey, who also doubles as Charlie Chaplin) defends the free market as the Shaws hitchhike to L.A.

Cat Hermes as Marion Davies and Rob Ibanez as Clark Gable

At the center of this tabloid vortex is Bill Chamberlain’s bemused and avuncular G.B.S., a social lion among the California caricatures. He intends to take as much as he can and give as little as he needs to—and gloriously succeeds.

Nothing here is exactly earth-shattering or even edifying: Fascinating in its fragments, John Nasca’s choppy staging badly needs music bridges between the 24 scenes to sustain the energy (the period music before the show and during the intermission, however, is delightfulness itself.)

But Saltzman’s glorified gossip will be entertainment enough for Shavian devotes. The eight-member ensemble’s cloning of celebrities comes close to a merry mark. It’s enough to believe that it could have happened this way to make you prize the play for its parts.

Anita Kallen and William Chamberlain as George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte Townsend Shaw

photos courtesy of MadKap Productions

Mr. Shaw Goes to Hollywood
MadKap Productions
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln Ave.
scheduled to end on February 16, 2014
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