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After four weeks of so-called "special performances," called previews in the States, the Shaw Festival's 1989 season officially got under way Wednesday with a performance in the Festival Theatre of "Man and Superman," Bernard Shaw's comic dissertation on male-female relations and the sometimes not-so-subtle distinctions between the pursuer and the pursued.

It's a masterpiece of its genre, and the production directed by Christopher Newton, with design by the eminent Russian Eduard Kochergin, will be in repertory through Oct. 15, with 11 performances during July and August interpolating the famous "Don Juan in Hell" dream sequence.

Well, you've never seen a "Man and Superman" like this one. Kochergin's visual notions for the play are decidedly minimalist. They pay homage to the geometry of painters Rothko and Albers, with each of the four acts framed in squares and rectangles which diminish then increase in size with varying stage depth.

These austere gray outlines and planes suggest metaphorically the complex layers and depths of possible meaning in Shaw's incalculably clever and inscrutable script. The ornateness of the few stage props used -- a desk and some stylized Gothic chairs, an old automobile, a stagecoach -- stands out in sharp relief against the starkness of the stage environment.

The number of balls Shaw keeps in the air during the course of "Man and Superman" is bewildering. There are several threads of straight narrative comedy.

The major strand involves the revolutionary liberal Jack Tanner who is appointed co-guardian of the wily Ann Whitefield. From the sidelines he exhibits virtuosic understanding of female motivation, but from the middle of the fray he cannot see that it is he himself who has been staked out as Ann's quarry, and not the bumbling, romantic and heroically naive Octavius Robinson.

Simultaneously, Octavius' sister Violet turns up pregnant, apparently out of wedlock, but actually married to a man whose identity she refuses to divulge. Continuing friction between Tanner and co-guardian Roebuck Ramsden, a dignified and harrumphing arch conservative, provides yet another developing sub-plot, as do the simple but clear-headed wisdom and insight of Tanner's chauffeur Henry Straker and the surreal Act 3 machinations and rites of a band of part-time socialist brigands who waylay Tanner and Straker in Spain during their flight from Ann's closing trap.

Those are just some of the obvious fibers of the fabric in this production, which comes in at nearly three and a half hours. Other more ephemeral expositions, pointed out by Newton in the program but left to the individual viewer to discover, are the production's magical nature, its operatic scope and form, Shaw's conviction that the world of 1900 was stark, raving mad (quite convincing), and his further notion that a mysterious Life Force would one day be the world's salvation (a much harder sell).

From his superb company, Newton has peopled this cast with near-ideal choices for virtually every key role.

As one of the principal protagonists, Michael Ball as Tanner seems as close to an incarnation of Shaw himself as I have seen in any play here. He is contentious, brilliant, with mental processes that work triple the speed of anyone else's. And yet he is vulnerable, and when tripped up how he howls! Ball ideally portrays the compleat intellectual, a man whose impenetrable armor is never pierced, but subtly infiltrated over the course of four acts.

Kate Trotter as Ann Whitefield gives by far her best performance at Shaw. In Act 1 she was nervous and skittery, giving only the subtlest of clues that Tanner will be her prey. The controlled rate at which she throws out her lines and reels in her catch is absolutely masterful, culminating in a wonderful mating dance in Act 4 which still manages to be both blatant and devious, a seeming contradiction deftly accomplished by Trotter and Ball.

William Hutt, a tower of strength in any role, superbly delineates Roebuck Ramsden's hard and fast conservative convictions ingrained over six decades. His sputtering indignation and outrage at Tanner's free-wheeling ideas was utterly convincing, the kind of performance that one almost took for granted. I'm a constant note-taker, but found I had written virtually nothing about Hutt during the performance. And when the inevitable softening of Ramsden's hard-line positions occurred he was again just as unobtrusive and just as good.

Peter Krantz also hit his Shaw peak as the hopelessly naive Octavius. He was wonderfully bumbling in projecting the hopelessness of a boy in a man's body, a young man who is wildly romantic but absolutely humorless in his obsessive and unrequited love for Ann.

Barry MacGregor lights up the stage with his special electricity as the chief of the comical band of intellectual brigands, William Vickers is a fine Cockney as Straker the chauffeur, while Julie Stewart and Jennifer Phipps carry off the relatively thankless (for Shaw) roles of Violet and Mrs. Whitefield very well.

Hector Malone, the American who turns out to be Violet's secret husband, is rather ineffectually played by Patric Masurkevitch, but as his manipulating father Al Kozlik comes up with a strong performance.

Original music by Christopher Donison adorns mostly the outer ends of the acts, a wordless cantilena sung by Gail Hakala, too often without enough softness of timbre or sinuousness of phrasing.

With Shaw hitting one of his peaks in brilliant, witty dialogue and zany scenario, and Newton producing a highly imaginative staging that amplifies all the diverse Shavian strands, "Man and Superman" rates as one of the best productions of a Shaw play produced by the Festival.

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