Brash and bawdy, George Bernard Shaw's one-act Great Catherine is now playing with his more talky Overruled in a terrific CityStage Ensemble evening, Shaws Together, calculated to bust a gut. As extravagant as both of these little plays are, director Greg Ward keeps his delightful cast tottering on the brink of comic overload but never quite spills over into excess.
Overruled concerns a man and a woman who have fallen in love en route to Istanbul, circa 1932. The one little complication in the shipboard romance is the fact that the lady is married. Greg-ory Lunn (played by Matt Cohen with amusing fervor) protests that he believed Mrs. Juno to be a widow or he would never have pursued her at all. The lovers try to do the right thing, but their passion is stronger than their conviction, even when Mrs. Juno discovers that Gregory is also married--to a beautiful woman he adores. Enter Mrs. Lunn on the arm of Mr. Juno, and the various protestations and cross-accusations get pretty screwy.
The marrieds really do love each other--as well as each other. And yet male ego and female vanity being what they are, the more each knows about the others, the less likely it is that romance will flourish.
Dan Hiester as the principled Mr. Juno projects a decorous ethical confusion with so much style that he seems to be lost in his own mind: It's all right to do the wrong thing, as long as you know what the right thing is, he asserts. Margaret Amaties Casart makes Mrs. Juno forthright and a little wide-eyed, with just the right touch of maternal condescension. And Trina Magnes brings an airy confidence to the perpetually amused Mrs. Lunn.
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But funny as it is, Overruled gets bogged down in cleverness. In Great Catherine, Shaw is less enamored of his own wit and uncharacteristically unbuttoned. This goofy play concerns the diplomatic visit of a British army officer named Captain Edstaston (the dashing and droll Joseph Miller) to Catherine the Great's Russian court. The Russkies are savage, venal and childlike compared with the stuffy Brit--but they're also a lot livelier and smarter than he is.
Catherine herself (another delightfully inventive characterization by Karen Erickson) has been influenced by French philosopher Voltaire to keep her murderous impulses in check--as becomes a modern monarch. But her libido is something else again, and she sees no need at all to reign it in. The good captain is, after all, fresh meat, and when he resists her advances, she has him hog-tied and tickled.
Meanwhile, Catherine's lovely niece, the light-heeled Varinka (Jean Sorich in an adorably loopy performance), and her barbarian uncle Patiomkin (Phi Bernier is a perfect ox) tease and taunt the outraged captain until he's quite crazed. It's a dazzling display of Shaw at his earthiest--staged to please the eye and dizzy the brain with the whirling absurdities of nature at odds with culture.--Mason
Shaws Together, through April 7 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.