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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Theater: Major Barbara
2007-06-13

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Playwright: George Bernard Shaw

At: Rogue Theatre, 5123 N. Clark

Phone: 773-561-5893; $12-$15

Runs through: July 8

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

If a sign of individual enlightenment is the ability to look at things from the other fellow's point of view, then George Bernard Shaw takes the honors in this 1905 play for his impassioned defense of war—albeit war with objectives clearly defined. But his argument comes almost as an afterthought to his proposals based in humanitarian principles. War as a humanitarian act—now there's clever reasoning for you!

Shaw wraps his symposium in a parody of the 'well-made' dramas popular in his time: Arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft is a millionaire by virtue of his business empire's bizarre rules of succession. Its founder was himself an orphan; therefore, all subsequent CEOs were required to be of likewise irregular—if not outright illegitimate—lineage. But Undershaft's estranged wife is now seeking financial support for their children—spoiled Stephen, shallow Sarah and rebellious Barbara, the last now an officer in the Salvation Army—forcing the family members to air their conflicting views and declare their goals. In the ensuing debate, Barbara's evangelism suffers disillusionment, while her father's Pullman-styled factory, with its adjunct facilities for employee housing and community benefits, is revealed to be downright utopian.

So what is the better tool for improving the lot of disenfranchised citizens—guns or Bibles? Nowadays, we tend toward suspicion of both—a skepticism acknowledged by Shaw, who finds both to be valuable, but sadly misapplied in his society. The keys to happiness and personal fulfillment, declares Undershaft, are food, shelter and productive labor, and only after these are provided can spiritual issues be addressed, free of materialistic interests. The coincidence of that freedom being facilitated, in this case, by the military-industrial complex does not discourage activist imperatives: Is the task of saving lives or souls not also work?

Whether or not you agree with this thesis, there is no denying the Rogue Theatre's skill at forging vivid characterizations and eloquent repartee from potentially soporific didactics. The cast—directed by Kerstin Broockmann and anchored by Nate White as the incorrigible Undershaft, Laura Shatkus as his conservative wife and Marie Antoinette Flores as his forthright daughter—overcomes its production's budgetary restrictions to keep us fully engaged, both intellectually and emotionally, in the dynamics of the moment. And if audience members leave with their fundamental convictions unchanged, they will at least have been provoked to examine the foundations of their beliefs—good brain exercise at, for, or in, any age.


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