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Berkshires Week & the Shires of Vermont

'Engaging Shaw' an unlikely love affair

Updated:   08/18/2006 07:27:12 AM EDT

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Katrina Ferguson and Mark Leydorf appear in the Oldcastle production of 'Engaging Shaw.'<P>
Thursday, August 17
George Bernard Shaw is probably not the likeliest candidate for the role of hero in a romantic comedy. Imposing, waspish, a man of words and intellect, the English playwright and critic, who died in 1950, is emblematic of man's aversion to romantic commitment.

American playwright John Morogiello isn't afraid of Shaw. Neither was Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress who married the fearsome Englishman in 1898 and remained his wife until her death in 1943.

"We know little, or less, about her. Clearly, she saw something in this man that made her want to share her life with him," said Langdon Brown, who is directing the world premiere of Morogiello's "Engaging Shaw" at Oldcastle Theatre Company.

Performances begin tomorrow night at 8 at the Bennington Center for the Natural and Cultural Arts, where the play is scheduled to run through Sept. 3.

Now an associate professor of English at the University at Albany and a Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute, Brown once chaired the theater department at Albany. Morogiello was one of Brown's graduate students there.

"Engaging Shaw" is a four-character piece — Shaw (played by Mark Leydorf), Charlotte (Katrina Ferguson), and their friends Beatrice Webb (Gwendolyn Lewis), and her husband, Sidney (Richard Howe).

The play chronicles Shaw and Payne-Townshend's meeting and courtship — what Brown describes as "the most unlikely love affair.


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"The obstacles are so huge, it makes it great fun to see how this develops," Brown said by telephone from Oldcastle's offices at the Bennington arts center.

"She made herself indispensible to him," Morogiello said by telephone, also from the arts center. "She proposed to him and he did what he usually did with women he encouraged. He told her no; that she should go off and better serve society.

"She did. Shaw found that he missed her. For nine months, he tried to get her to come back. Finally, she returned and they were married.

"She beat him at his own game."

Shaw was known as the great offstage character — his voice can be heard in all his characters. It is clear who is pulling their strings. He was a man of tremendous verbal and intellectual resources with a deep fear of intimacy that goes back, Brown says, to Shaw's childhood during which he was deprived of affection.

"I don't know anyone in history with the limited sexual history of Shaw," Brown said.

The trick, Brown and Morogiello agree, has been to balance the historical Shaw with the stage Shaw.

Morogiello says "Engaging Shaw" is "13 percent Shaw, the rest ... my own invention."

Ironically, Morogiello says, as he and Brown have been working on the play in rehearsal, making cuts here and there, that 13 percent Shaw has shrunk further.

"The key," Brown says, "is to make sure you don't get so buried in history, so in love with your research, you lose the drama."

The play's language, Brown says, is more "fluid and intellectually challenging than we're used to hearing."

Above all, Brown says, " 'Engaging Shaw' is an extremely funny play. What I'm trying to do is find the right tonality so that it's not farce ..."




Morogiello lives outside Washington, D.C., in Montgomery County and is playwright-in-residence with the Maryland State Arts Council. He has about a half dozen or so plays to his credit. The 41-year-old playwright's "Irish Author Held Hostage" was named outstanding production at the 2003 Washington (D.C.) Theatre Festival and is being considered for production by Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, Conn., and Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where, ironically, "Engaging Shaw" was born.

Morogiello had been working at the Huntington preparing school study guides for the company's Shaw plays when he came across some material about Shaw's marriage and how it came to be. The material appealed to Morogiello. He dug deeper and began writing.

Morogiello's agent sent copies of the script to various theaters when, lo and behold, 9/11 happened. Theaters retrenched. The play was rejected. When the scripts were sent out again after a respectful period elapsed, literary managers rejected the play again, telling Morogiello it was because they already had seen the script and turned it down once before. Then, Morogiello's agent died of cancer.

At a dead end, Morogiello let the play languish for a while. Then, two years ago, on a hunch, he sent the play to Brown.

"When (John) sent me the play," Brown said, "I picked it up with some trepidation. I found the voice authentic, however, and as I got into it I thought it was among the better new plays I had read in years."

Without promise of a production anywhere, the two began shaping the material. When Brown ran into Oldcastle Theatre Company's producing artistic director Eric Peterson during an event at the Writers Institute in Albany, he asked Peterson for advice about how to move the play along. Peterson asked to see the script, was taken by it and offered to produce it at Oldcastle.

Morogiello believes the relationship between playwright and director is among the closest.

The director, Morogiello says, is the "interpreter of a foreign language.

"The actors and playwright speak a language, and sometimes they are not speaking the same language," Morogiello said. "The director knows how to speak with the actors and the playwright on their respective levels.

"It's a matter of trust. I've known Langdon a long time. We share a similar artistic vision for this play."

 
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