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In George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, the title character speaks of “the hands that stretch everywhere,” the profiteers of human suffering who fuel the engines of charity with their ill-gotten gains. The 1905 play, revived currently by Quintessence Theatre Group, identified a quandary that still plagues our society more than a century later: why does doing good often come with such questionable strings attached?
In other words, it needs no updating or extraordinary measures to remain relevant. One can simply remember the cultural and philanthropic institutions that happily received blood money from the Sackler family to prove Shaw’s point. As the munitions manufacturer Andrew Undershaft impresses upon his headstrong daughter, an officer of the Salvation Army, prayer may save the soul, but money saves the world.
Subtext becomes text
The Quintessence staging, helmed by artistic director Alex Burns, doesn’t seem to trust the audience to receive Shaw’s typically blunt message. Burns affixes numerous directorial bells and whistles that are alternately alienating, condescending, and simply nonsensical. A purposely didactic play needs no further proselytizing. Here, extra-textual sermonizing battles with the playwright’s own pamphleteering attitude toward morality.
Burns employs some familiar devices, like staging some of the play’s early scenes in the lobby and anteroom of the Sedgwick Theater, before moving the audience into the auditorium proper for the meat of the action. Quintessence previously used a similar configuration for their 2019 production of King Lear, and here, it is meant to replicate the feelings of enthusiasm engendered by Barbara during her prayer meetings. In practice, it’s uncomfortable and impractical—especially for older audience members—and causes viewers to lose focus and miss important snatches of dialogue.
Once inside the theater, Burns, who also serves as the scenic designer, furnishes a tennis-court stage configuration that more often leaves the viewer watching their fellow audience members across the divide than the actors onstage. During the comedic first act, set in the well-appointed parlor of Lady Britomart Undershaft, there is hardly a moment where the actors aren’t in profile, which severely limits the expressive range of their performances. The placement of bodies at extreme ends of the catwalk stage also makes it difficult to gauge action and reaction in a scene without rapidly turning your head from side to side.
These choices, while misguided, are at least palatable. But the worst instincts come out in a set of supertitles that incessantly flash data points to the audience while the actors deliver their lines. Each time a character brings up money, we receive a conversion into contemporary U.S. dollars. As the action moves to Barbara’s mission, we learn how many Philadelphians are currently unhoused. Andrew’s cannon factory allows for the recitation of battlefield casualties from the Civil War onward. What is barely subtext in Shaw’s play becomes, well, text.
Damaging the world of the play
In service of these pedantic choices, the actual world-building and character work suffer. On opening night, accents were inconsistent and lines occasionally stepped over. There is little sense of the Undershafts as any sort of family—even a dysfunctional one. Acting styles vary wildly. Marcia Saunders delivers an archly overstated performance as Lady Britomart, in the Fawlty Towers school of British comedy, while Paul Parente lacks entirely the gravitas and wit needed to frustrate and endear as Andrew. As Barbara’s mischievous fiancé Adolphus Cusins, the usually reliable J Hernandez comes across as more dopey than sly.
Yet two successful performances emerge from the morass. Aneesa Neibauer captures the vacuous nature of Barbara’s younger sister, Sarah Undershaft, and is the sole performer who truly captures the period style. (Summer Lee Jack’s economical costumes, and the production itself, self-consciously elide any grounding in a specific time frame.) In the title role, Melody Ladd communicates Barbara’s shift from wide-eyed enthusiasm to jaded resignation at the workings of the world. By and large, though, this Major Barbara is a major disappointment.
Beginning September 27, 2023, Major Barbara will run in repertory with No Exit; consult the website for the performance schedule.
What, When, Where
Major Barbara. By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Alex Burns. $15-$60. Through October 29, 2023, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. A private, all-gender accessible restroom is available in the main lobby. In the first 10 minutes of this production, audience members are asked to move between various locations before taking their seats in the auditorium.
Masks are not required.
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