Theater Emory Tackles Shaw's Empic "Back to Methuselah" in Two Parts
George Bernard Shaws epic five-part play, "Back to Methuselah," is so technically difficult to stage, that only a handful of productions have been done around the world since 1920. Theater Emory will stage the rarely produced work Oct. 11-Nov. 4 as the start of a season selected by acting artistic director Leslie Taylor. Staging "Methuselah" is no small feat; a full production could run upwards of seven hours, so Theater Emorys production will be staged in two parts, similar to how "Angels in America" and "Nicholas Nickleby" were done elsewhere.
Why tackle the mammoth work that spans 31,920 B.C. to 31,920 A.D.? "The time span and the length of the play intrigued me," says Taylor. "The hubris and the imagination of the playwright stunned me." Last year Theater Emory embarked on a multi-year investigation of Shaws work under producing artistic director Vincent Murphy, who currently is on sabbatical, but he assured Taylor that she was under no obligation to do a Shaw piece. For Taylor however, all the signs pointed to "Back to Methuselah," a work that had captivated her as a freshman at Wellesley. Considering the time span of the play, Taylor wasnt sure it could be pulled off. She was convinced to tackle it when guest director Tim Ocel described a similar epiphany with that work in recent months, then Theater Emory colleague Michael Evenden said hed also been fascinated by the work way back in high school.
"To me, that two other people I respect had been so captivated by this same work was the sign that we should do it," Taylor says. Ocel will stage four of the five parts, with Evenden directing the technically challenging part four as a period staged reading circa 1920s. The audience will move to a different part of the theater for each section of the play. In the play, Shaw asks how long one would have to live to gain the maturity necessary to create a truly wise and just society. The play is part of the universitys Year of Reconciliation.
The impressive cast includes some of the areas finest professional actors, including John Ammerman (Franklin Barnabas), Brenda Bynum (Zoo), Stuart Culpepper (GBS and elderly gentleman), Betty Hart (Minister of Health), Elise Hurt (Mrs. Lutesong), Chris Kayser (Lubin and Burge-Lubin), Tom Key (Joyce Burge), Maia Knispel (Eve), Harold Leaver (Haslam and the Archbishop), Kim M. Shipley (Conrad Barnabas and Pygmalion), Widdi Turner (the Oracle) and Steven Westdahl (Martellus). Several Emory student actors round out the cast.
"Back to Methuselah" was written between 1918 and 1920. A complete picture of Shaw would balance the timeless playwright with the always-current political essayist and public speaker (he is said to have made some 2,000 political orations to a wide variety of audiences for many different causes), according to Evenden. "At his best, the timeless and the historically specific join: Although Back to Methuselah is pitched to the eternities, it was immediately inspired by the apocalyptic horrors of World War I, and key passages of Shaws wartime essays and speeches are directly quoted in the dialogue."
"The prodigious accomplishment of this play is best understood as an effort to think both backward and forward to the ends of time from a specific momentthe moment when human destructiveness seemed most exposed, and the best of human potential had to be recalled and reconceived by the most forceful imagination of its time," says Evenden. Shaw imagines the future and the mythic past, by manipulating and extrapolating from ideas, texts and images available to him in the moment of his writing, according to Evenden. "By framing the performance in Shaws own voice and in images and notions traceable to the 1910s and 20s, this production seeks to honor both Shaws amazing prescience and farsightedness and the grounding of his imagination in a concrete moment, deeply lived."
"Back to Methuselah" will be staged in two parts in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater, Dobbs University Center, 605 Asbury Circle, Emory. Tickets may be purchased for either part or at a discount for both. The prices for either part purchased individually are $7.50 Emory students with i.d. or $15 general admission. The prices for both parts purchased together are $15 Emory students with i.d. and $25 general admission.
* pay-what-you-can performance
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