‘CANDIDA’ MOMENTS WITH A SHAW APOSTLE

candidaposter1The Shaw must go on: Two River Theater Company offers up four nights of previews for George Bernard Shaw’s CANDIDA beginning Tuesday.

By TOM CHESEK

First of all, it’s pronounced CAN-did-uh. Say it like Can-DEE-dah, and you’re referencing a 1970 hit by Tony Orlando & Dawn. Or you could be talking about a yeast infection.

Speak it as intended, however, and you’re stylishly dropping the name of a sharply written comedy classic that represented an early success for the great George Bernard Shaw. The centuries-spanning, Nobel Prize (and Oscar) winning, Irish-born wit and human rights champion was last seen on the stage of the Two River Theater with a topical (if threatening to topple) production of Heartbreak House a couple of seasons back. Beginning with the first of four preview performances on Tuesday night, Two River Theater Company puts on a Shaw once more, with a major revival of the 1898 Candida.

The new TRTC artistic director John Dias inherited this project — in which the strong and supportive wife of a respectable clergyman must make a choice between her husband and a passionate young poet who enters her life — when he took over the creative reins last September. Master facilitator that he is, Dias set about matching the play to a director who, more than anybody else in the business, has kept the soul and wisdom of “G.B.S.” readily accessible on our cultural GPS.

As the founder of NYC’s Gingold Theatrical Group, the actor-producer-director David Staller initiated a little undertaking called Project Shaw — a mission by which every one of Shaw’s full-length plays, skits, one-acts and puppet shows would be performed (often with all-star casts and sometimes for the first time in the United States) as a “concert” style reading. Having successfully presented all 65 of them (and having turned right back around and started up all over again), Staller has arrived at station stop Red Bank to direct Sue Cremin, Steven Skybell and Will Bradley in Two River’s Candida — and it was there that the redbankgreen Drama Desk caught up with this expert on all things Shavian.

shawstallerCANDIDA creator George Bernard Shaw, pictured with his greatest contemporary champion, director David Staller.

redbankgreen: My first and only encounter with CANDIDA was in print, inside of a schoolbook collection… didn’t quite know what to make of it then. Notwithstanding your own amazing efforts, why is it that Shaw’s plays are never as frequently produced as we might think?

DAVID STALLER: I think it’s because these plays only truly spring to life on their feet. The very worst thing you could do is to confine these plays to the printed page; to approach them purely as an academic and to force-feed them to students in school.

But to hear Shaw’s words performed by a cast of really good actors is something else entirely. A play like Man and Superman is so smart, and so funny, when you’re listening instead of simply reading.

So how does CANDIDA stack up against some of Shaw’s other best known stuff, like PYGMALION, ARMS AND THE MAN, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA? And would you describe it a “political” play, in that pretty much everything he wrote addresses some underlying issue?

I feel confident that it’s a classic, because it deals in universal truths. It’s about shared quests: who we are, and who we want to be.

It’s been referred to as a ‘Victorian boulevard comedy,’ but what it is really is a damned brilliant play. It raises some maddening questions, but like the best of Shaw’s plays, Candida is not about debate, it’s about discoveries, about the belief that everyone has rights.

In this case, about a woman’s right to exercise control over her own destiny, which surely raised a few eyebrows and popped a few monocles in its day.

That Shaw allowed this woman to ponder her independence; to live a free and fulfilling life, was unthinkable then. Shaw was knocked out by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House when he went to see it — but it bugged him that the character Nora in the play just walks out on her husband, with no means of support, nowhere to go. Shaw’s attitude was that it was a stupid choice; that she should stay and negotiate from a position of power.

Well, CANDIDA had a pretty powerful proponent for years, in the great stage actress and producer Katharine Cornell.

Cornell played the role five times on Broadway, working with Burgess Meredith and others, and she was more or less responsible for how the play is produced these days. The last time she did it, Cornell acted alongside young Marlon Brando — and Marian Seldes told me once that the onstage marriage of Cornell and Brando was not an easy one.

You can almost forget sometimes that old Shaw was still around for the age of Brando, the A-bomb, television, and also the Victorian era of Oscar Wilde, Dickens…

He lived nearly 95 years — and as far as I’m concerned the only reason he didn’t make it to 100 is that he climbed up on a ladder, a tall house ladder, and fell when he tried to prune a tree branch with a pair of shears.

It’s just amazing to contemplate the history that he lived through, and of course he remained sharp and lucid to the end. He was a playwright, a great critic, a novelist, essayist, and a journalist.

Do you think that his celebrity, his instantly familiar look and style, helped to get his plays produced in his lifetime? Or was the fact that he was treated as a cute old curmudgeon a drawback by then?

He was very famous in the later decades of his life, although that didn’t always help his plays to get produced… and there’s a sense that Shaw was always willing to make himself into a public buffoon, to deflect from the seriousness of a lot of his themes.

Behind the almost pixie-ish quality was a very real commitment to human rights. He fought so hard for rights — not just humans but animals; to him any living being had the right to respect. His work remains very contemporary that way — and I long for the day when Shaw’s work is no longer relevant.

Candida begins four nights of previews Tuesday, March 22; opens Saturday, March 26, and runs through Sunday, April 10. Tickets are $35 – $61 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.