Souls for Sale

The life gets sucked out of Major Barbara.

Braving theatrical waters that have proved treacherous to the hardiest of companies, the Upstart Crow Theatre has produced nineteen consecutive seasons of uncut classic plays. Even more remarkable, on a recent opening night, the Boulder group drew a full house of spectators who seemed perfectly willing to fork over fifteen dollars apiece to sit through a monotonous three-and-one-quarter-hour version of George Bernard Shaw's comedy Major Barbara.

Despite the actors' collective tendency to deliver Shaw's lively dialogue with one-note deadliness, the Irishman's 1905 arguments about mealy-mouthed pacifists and draconian social reformers prove compelling -- and surprisingly timely. As in Shaw's day, organized religion remains a loosely related collection of feel-good clubs for the self-important and well-connected. Arms dealers are still paid handsomely to procure weapons that kill in ever-more impersonal ways. And the poor and underprivileged continue to cling to life at its increasingly vanishing yet disturbingly crowded margins. As we learn from the Salvation Army stalwart of the play's title, all of these problems have a common solution.

Indeed, as Major Barbara Undershaft (Joan Kuder Bell) tirelessly points out, society would be a lot better off if people would stop finding ways to undermine each other and recognize instead that they're all God's children with "the same salvation waiting for them all." To demonstrate that she's not just whistling "Onward Christian Soldiers," Barbara takes up the cross by tending to the downtrodden folk of a London mission -- a calling that seems the exact opposite chosen by her estranged father, Andrew Undershaft (Louis Clark), a wealthy arms manufacturer.

As the three-act play unfolds, Barbara and her father, along with several other family members and associates, discuss war, religion and the moral advantages and failings of both. "My sort of blood purifies, my sort of fire cleanses," sermonizes the elder Undershaft. "So does mine," replies Barbara. Eventually, Undershaft attempts to compromise his daughter's beliefs by offering her fiancé a well-paying job at his factory. He also justifies his decision to seek wealth and power by putting forth a litany of arguments about the advantages of backing up one's moral stances with money and gunpowder.

For the first couple of acts, director Richard Bell keeps things moving at a comfortable enough pace. Act Two, in particular, crackles with an exchange between a street tough, Bill Walker (Zachary Land), and the mission staff. Livid that Barbara and her charges have arranged to have his betrothed spirited away to a safe place (thereby preventing him from committing more acts of physical violence against her), Bill storms into the mission hall and knocks a few people around, including a youthful recruit named Jenny, who winds up with a split lip. That prompts an unflappable Barbara to declare, "It's your soul that's hurting, Bill, not me." A few minutes later, Undershaft undercuts his daughter's do-gooding efforts by pledging money to support the financially strapped mission -- a gesture that also validates Bill's pathetic attempt to buy Jenny's forgiveness by offering her a shiny new coin. Outraged at both of the men, Barbara cries, "The Army is not to be bought. We want your soul, Bill, and we'll take nothing less."

During the seventy-minute Act Three, however, the actors' endless droning becomes unbearable. It isn't that the characters run out of new ways to hammer home old points -- these are, after all, mouthpieces of the theater's most voluble polemicist -- or that there aren't enough unresolved issues to keep matters interesting. It's just that, after two hours' worth of intellectualized yammering, we're unable to identify with any of the characters on a blood-and-guts level. Land's blustery Bill is more disagreeable blowhard than crafty lout, Bell's bleeding-heart Barbara fails to convince us that she's struggling to reconcile vocational demands with familial duty, and Clark's pedantic Undershaft is long on calculated lecturing and short on extemporized brilliance. As a result, Shaw's final (and lengthy) arguments come off as interminable bombast -- when they should sound more like the rousing culmination of a topsy-turvy, nettlesome debate. Despite Bell and company's laudable efforts to make a joyful noise, they amount to little more than a beautifully costumed, dry-bones reading of Shaw's richly provocative play.

 
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