Friday, February 2, 2018

"Widowers' Houses"

Widowers’ Houses
George Bernard Shaw

Dan Hoyle, Michael Gene Sullivan, Megan Trout & Warren David Keith
One of the greatest forces in modern, Western literature who wrote over sixty plays during his long career on subjects from religion to politics to social justice began his career with a play just as relevant in the housing strapped Bay Area of 2018 as it was in tenement-stuffed London of 1892.  George Bernard Shaw’s initial, full-length work – Widower’s Houses – tackles issues of unsafe and insufficient housing for the poor, rich slumlords who refuse to perform basic maintenance, and gentrification of poorer neighborhoods in order to make way for higher rents and more profits. 

Those same issues are regular headlines in our local papers, making the current production of Widowers’ Houses at Aurora Theatre Company particularly timely and significant, especially when patrons must make their way past Berkeley’s sidewalk homeless in order to enter the theatre.  That Shaw was still a young, developing playwright is evident in a script that loses some energy and bogs down at times during the short, three acts.  What saves the Aurora production is a crackerjack cast of characters who ensure the biting humor and edgy irony of Shaw shines through in their stellar performances of this somewhat imperfect play.

Megan Trout, Dan Hoyle, Michael Gene Sullivan & Warren Dvid Keith
Shaw and Director Joy Carlin pull the audience in by giving us an Act One that is simply a romantic comedy, complete with an opening scene of a cock-headed waitress whose silent-movie-like gestures are just a precursor of the hilarity Sarah Mitchell will bring throughout the evening to various ‘downstairs’ roles as she begrudgingly serves those of the ‘upstairs’ class.  On the plaza of a fancy Rhine River resort, two vacationing British aristocratic gents and friends – a young Dr. Harry Trench and a much older but still dashingly spry William Cokane – meet an elderly, distinguished gentleman and fellow countryman, Mr. Sartorius, and his beautiful, seemingly demure daughter, Blanche.  As it turns out, Blanche and Harry have already fallen in love on the steamboat that all were on the week prior; and the first act is consumed with rather mild humor and polite chitchat as a deal is struck for a possible marriage.  The potential merger of the newly met lovers is one also between a money-strapped Trench who is from a respected, noble family and a money-rich Blanche whose father is “of considerable wealth and position ... made entirely for himself” (in other words, old money meets new money).

Warren David Keith & Howard Swain
The mild silliness of Act One turns to a much darker Act Two as the scene shifts to the Sartorius’s London estate and its impressive library of leather, rich wood, chandelier, and massive bookcases (all part of Kent Dorsey’s striking scenic design).  It turns out that the mild-mannered Sartorius is a notorious slumlord milking weekly rents from the poorest of London’s citizens and using his ragged henchman, Lickcheese, to make all the threats necessary to bring him sacks of the ill-gotten coins.  When Lickcheese dares to spend a little over one British pound to fix a failing staircase where three women have already been injured, Sartorius sacks him in a wave of fury.  As Trench and Cokane arrive to solidify the marriage settlement with Mr. Sartorius, they meet Lickcheese and hear at length of what was meant by a fortune “made entirely for himself.”  Both are appalled, and the love that seemed so destined shatters with fireworks erupting within the otherwise sedate, Sartorius library.

As the play progresses in this early Shavian style, twists and turns of characters and plot develop, revealing a more sinister but not completely evil side of all.  No one is totally bad, but no one is near pure either.  Firm resolves based on supposed high morals melt just a bit when hard, economic realities come to full light.  This young Shaw already is quick and bold to show that there is a division wide in his society between the haves and have-nots and that the forces to bridge that gap are mostly words only, not near strong enough to overpower the jingle of increasing one’s wealth.

Each member of this talented cast creates a character unique and memorable through masterful manipulations of facial expressions, body stances, and vocal gymnastics.  Each also impersonates wonderfully the names that Shaw has bestowed upon them to describe in connotation some aspect of their personalities (i.e., Lickcheese, Blah-anche, Cok(cai)ne, etc.).

Dan Hoyle & Warren David Keith
Dan Hoyle, best known in the Bay Area and beyond for his award-winning solo shows such as The Real Americans and Tings They Happen, is a gem to watch as young Dr. Trench as he calls on a plethora of ways to use his ever-moving eyebrows; lips pooched, pursed, and pouted; and a dozen other facial manipulations to give his Trench even better dialogue than Shaw provides him. 

Similarly, Megan Trout as Blanche does some incredible eye movements and sudden changes of silent expression to communicate loudly what is actually going on inside this complex, devoted daughter.  But it is when she bursts into sudden bouts of loud and verbose anger – even physically attacking animal-like at times – that Ms. Trout particularly makes her mark with a Blanche whom we learn is not quite as sophisticated as her perfectly picked and matched late-Victorian outfits might indicate (all selected and designed by Callie Floor, who too leaves her mark on the entire production in eye-popping and often fun ways).
Megan Trout & Sarah Mitchell

Warren David Keith uses a wonderful, prune-wrinkled face with a mouth often in a proud frown to give his aged Mr. Sartorius an acquired look of urban gentry.  He too can turn into a mountain of fury when it comes to a few pounds he may have spent unwillingly, and his declarations about his slum’s residents are delivered with shocking self-righteousness.  “These poor people would not know how to live in proper places ... They would wreck them in a week,” he says without a blink of an eye in a tone ‘you must know I am right.’

Trench’s friend and advisor, Cokane, is a smooth-talking, ingratiating Michael Gene Sullivan who puts his finger into the wind and moves with the current flow in order to help smooth any rough waters but also to stay afloat and in favor himself.  As refined as Cokane is in speech, dress, and demeanor, the ousted rent-collector Lickcheese is on the opposite end with a street-wise Cockney accent, ragged clothes, and wildly disheveled hair and beard.  But Howard Swain’s Lickcheese has a major turn in life events unforeseen in Act One when he is fired.  When he reappears in Act Three, the metamorphosis is both hilarious and hideous, thanks to Shaw’s script, Mr. Swain’s fabulous acting, and Callie Floor’s costume genius.

The developments of the Act Three are crucial to understand all of Shaw’s messages but are also difficult to wade through in the details of shady business dealings being proposed and undertaken.  The play mires down a bit, but Joy Carlin and her cast do all they can to keep our interest through the quirkiness of the characters, if nothing else. 

As the play comes to a final statement made once again by a silent but very expressive-in-mouthed-words Sarah Mitchell (this time as the Sartorius’s maid), there is a noble attempt by the director to use projections of current housing and homeless conditions in the East Bay to make obvious parallels between now and a century and a quarter ago.  Unfortunately, most audience members are at that point more interested in leaving than sticking around for a slide show; so I am afraid the intended effect is mostly lost.

But what is not lost is a wonderfully conceived and produced airing of Shaw’s first of his many message-packed plays -- a Widowers’ Houses that Aurora Theatre revives full of Shavian humor, surprises, and none-too-subtle jabs at current (then and now) society.

Rating: 4 E

Widowers’ Houses continues in extension through March 4, 2018 on the main stage of Aurora Theatre through September 27, 2015.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-843-4822.

Photos by David Allen

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