Shaw vs. Chesterton:
Talkative format carries niche appeal
Provision Theater presents
Shaw vs. Chesterton: The Debate
Review by Lauren Whalen
Opposites attract: the principle doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. To quote one of my favorite sitcoms, “We’re friends. We don’t need to have anything in common.” George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton – two of the finest literary minds of the 20th century – had very little in common. Shaw was an atheist, socialist and vegetarian, while Chesterton was a Christian distributist who loved meat. Yet the two remained best friends who relished a stirring yet respectful debate. Based on actual exchanges between the playwright and journalist, Shaw vs. Chesterton: The Debate is an intelligent peek into the minds of two brilliant men, though the talk-heavy format may not appeal to everyone.
The play begins with Shaw (Lawrence McCauley) and Chesterton (Brad Armacost) preparing for an onstage debate, while bantering playfully and assisting moderator Belloc (Michael Downey) with his bloody nose. Throughout an intermission-less 85 minutes, Shaw and Chesterton interact with audience members, tease Belloc and embark on friendly verbal sparring: first on the topics of politics and religion, then in a “lightning round” with spectator input. But Chesterton has a secret that, when revealed, will throw Shaw for a loop and could change the friendship forever.
Some elements of Shaw vs. Chesterton feel superfluous: for example, Inseung Park’s otherwise spot-on set design includes chairs bolted to the walls. Why is that necessary? Also, the play opens with Jim Poole’s video compilation of famous debates from this century and last, involving Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Richard Nixon, among others. Because this audience is attending a play with the word “debate” in the title – and most of them have probably watched television in the past decade – they are well aware of what a debate actually entails and don’t need it spelled out for them.
And at its core, Shaw vs. Chesterton is just that: an hour-plus-long debate. Only two scenes showcase Shaw and Chesterton’s relationship outside of the back-and-forth: more human and less showy, these were my favorites, and I wanted more of the same. While the talk of property and religion is both interesting and frighteningly relevant, I wasn’t always engaged. I could appreciate the intellectual sparring, but I wanted to learn more about the men themselves and their unique friendship.
Despite a script that doesn’t always compel, the three actors have a wonderful time onstage and share this joy with the audience. Downey brings a light comic touch to his moderator role, with relatable frustration when the sparring gets slightly out of control. As Chesterton, Armacost articulates conservative beliefs with a jolly fervor and a deep respect for his opponent. And McCauley’s bombastic and hilarious Shaw radiates wit and good humor with flawless delivery of lines such as “I’m an atheist – and I thank God for it!” He wields his pocket watch like a weapon, dispelling the friendliest of fire, with brotherly love for Chesterton shining through every syllable.
As this contentious election year has proved, people find comfort in their beliefs. They also find comfort in each other. Shaw vs. Chesterton: The Debate effectively illustrates what happens when two brilliant individuals agree to disagree, chatting all the way. Timothy Gregory’s direction of two stellar actors is promising – if only his adaptation had been more engaging.
Shaw vs. Chesterton: The Debate continues through October 28th at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $15-$32, and are available online thru OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ProvisionTheater.org. (Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Megan Gallagher
Lawrence McCauley (George Bernard Shaw), Brad Armacost (GK Chesterton), Michael Downey (Belloc), Mike Rogalski (Shaw Understudy)
behind the scenes
Timothy Gregory (director); Inseung Park (set); Marly Wooster (lighting); Cara Adams (costumes); Daniel Carlyon (sound); Alfredo Aguilar (production manager, tech director, asst. stage manager); Kari Waring (production stage manager); Scott Pillsbury (master electrician); Jason Clark (carpenter, rigger); Molly Clasen (dramaturg); Marzena Bukowska (asst. director); Hayley Carbonaro, Ashley Woods (scenic painters); Jim Poole (video); Gary Fry (original music); Megan Gallagher (photos)