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John Tanner, the realist-thinker of Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman," has to be the most marvelous, inspiringly articulate, awesomely rhythmical and long-winded mouthpiece for a playwright ever created for the theater.

Shaw gives his "hero" (the word has to be hung on hooks because by story's end all the magnificent talk comes to naught) such a steam-engine brain that he pounds out so many astute arguments, pungent little essays and caustic asides that his words, to retain any dramatic justification at all, had to spill over into an entire act that was nothing but debate: the "Don Juan in Hell" section.

The debate among theatergoers and theater producers has long been whether it's worth spending four hours in a theater when a sizable chunk of that time is devoted to a lengthy, actionless Socratic argument. Yes, it's a debate among fascinating characters: Mozart's Don Giovanni, the Commendatore (the Statue) whom he killed, the woman he ravished (Dona Ana) and the Devil, who dragged the Don down into hell. But then even Shaw saw difficulty in unabated argument as theater and arranged it so that the brilliant mock-romance that surrounds the "Hell" section could be neatly peeled off and performed as a separate piece. And this has been the way "Man and Superman" has often been done, with the "Don Juan in Hell" dream sequence going its own way as an independent one-act.

Interestingly, Shaw Festival's first-ever production, in 1962, was "Don Juan in Hell." The festival has performed the complete "Man and Superman" three times since, on the last two occasions mixing in some hell-free performances for those with less than Wagnerian endurance.

This season audiences also have a choice of the complete play or just "Man and Superman" sans the "fiery" debates. I know that getting to an out-of-town theater by 11:30 in the morning and sitting in a theater for four hours -- even with a nice picnic break as part of the ticket price -- can seem hellish in its own right. But this is superb theater and worth any extraordinary efforts that may be required.

Note that you're hearing this from someone who has in the past found little to recommend in Neil Munro's often hyperbolic directorial style. Here Munro keeps his natural flamboyance in check: He only pulls out the Keystone Kops routine and a couple of well-placed visual jokes during the hilarious "brigands" scene, which is, as Shaw wrote it, already well over the top. Munro and Benedict Campbell as the crazy, love-sick robber Mendozza make this one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen in a Shaw play. Campbell does a wily transformation for his role as the Devil, becoming an utterly convincing and charming creature arguing for hell as an escapist paradise.

Ben Carlson's execution of the verbose John Tanner is exhilarating. His pacing, the spinning out of Shaw's delightful internal rhythms, his uncanny comic timing, the naturalness he gives to the flow of the lines -- all these things mark this as a magnificent performance. Carlson carries over this brilliant argumentative mode in the hell scene, but elevates the tone ever so sightly so that we realize that this is a debate in "eternity," stripped of earthly limits and, as Shaw intended, can go absolutely anywhere.

Like all fine performances, Carlson's stellar work allows his fellow players to better set up and develop their own characters. Octavius is just the kind of romantic dunce that Munro might turn into a bounding, wailing caricature. Here, Evan Buliung has him in total command. He creates a delectable contrast of type -- Tanner the realist, Octavius the romantic -- without tumbling to far into emotional excess.

David Schurmann's take on Roebuck Ramsden is perfectly measured to reveal a repressed person clapped down by class and social convention. But he is also keenly attuned to Carlson's performance: He makes Ramsden much more than an obvious reverse-out of the free-thinking Tanner. This open-endedness pays off in hell, with Schurmann as the Statue at that moment when Shaw has the character ironically chide the Don -- and Shaw himself -- for the ridiculousness of his lengthy speeches.

The whole narrative swings around Ann Whitefield's (Fiona Byrne) pursuit of Tanner, a man who thinks a woman "makes you will your own destruction." Ann's elaborate scheming and multiple deceits -- which spawn some of the memorable comic moments -- makes her a wildly extravagant portrait of the grasping, manipulative woman. It's a shame that this superb production, filled as it is with fine performances by Lisa Norton, Sharry Fleet and Wendy Thacher and others, has to suffer Byrne in the key role. She slinked and swayed and posed her way through the part, as though Ann was some tawdry lounge entertainer angling for tips, not the seductress currently in charge of the real-life end of Shaw's life force. The "Don Juan in Hell" act has the unintentional benefit of forcing Byrne to shed her awful mannerisms for a while. In hell, she's a rather boring and plain hypocrite -- and a better actor for it.

Peter Hartwell's spare set of ordinary chairs and floating backdrops was effective, especially coupled with Kevin Lamotte's ingenious lighting. The stage-assembled automobile and Don Juan's huge tricycle were wonderful elements. Recorded on piano alone, Paul Sportelli's jazzy variations on Mozart's themes (including "Don Giovanni, of course) nimbly negotiated all the required moods from light to heavy.


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