Staller has taken Shaw's complex and lengthy 1903 script, which champions several of his beliefs about men and women and the life force, and trimmed it a bit here and tweaked it a patch there. The result is what feels like a forerunner of today's romantic comedies, in which the girl chases the boy until she catches him -- or someone near him.
Here, Shaw's heroine, Ann Whitefield (Janie Brookshire) is in a pickle. Her father has died and willed that her guardianship be taken on by both stuffy Roebuck Ramsden (Brian Murray) and the young author of The Revolutionist's Handbook, John "Jack" Tanner (Max Gordon Moore). Moreover, while giving the appearance of loving her suitor, Octavius "Tavy" Robinson (Will Bradley), Ann has actually set her keen sights on Jack.
Much of what Man & Superman centers on is how Ann goes about landing the elusive Jack, who openly disdains her for her silky deceptions. As she finagles, several others -- like dashing chauffeur/mechanic Henry Straker (Brian Sgambati) -- chatter wittily around her.
The work is most renowned for its third act, which contains "Don Juan in Hell," a dream sequence that Jack shares with the rakish Spaniard, Mendoza (Jonathan Hammond). Although the gabby interruption is often dropped completely -- or is sometimes presented on its own -- Staller keeps a shortened version for this outing.
Pruning the section with great care, he doesn't dilute the hilarity of the attitudes expressed in it towards dying and going to boring heaven or intellectually stimulating hell. As Mendoza, playing the devil to Jack's Don Juan, says, "There's a notion that I was turned out of [heaven], but as a matter of fact, nothing could have induced me to stay there." And that's just a tantalizing sample.
Fortunately, the troupe Staller has gathered to wage his unceasingly enthusiastic arguments in Shaw's favor is a merry, well-spoken one, particularly when Murray, Moore, Hammond, and Sgambati raise their hearty voices.
Man & Superman requires deft handling, and not simply because of the weighty "Don Juan in Hell" challenge. Among other intriguing aspects, it's Shaw's response to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's musings on the advent of a superman. Yet, by the final embrace, the savvy Staller has made the work's heavier thematic baggage as light as Ann Whitefield's cunning smile.
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