by Mark Johnson
A large part of California Shakespeare Theater’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s rarely produced “You Never Can Tell” is boisterous and hugely entertaining, roaring to life with clownish ebullience that will undoubtably delight audiences. It’s a shame that these moments can’t comprise the entire production, as the more serious moments of the evening come across as lethargic and poorly paced.
Part of this is due to Shaw’s play, which doesn’t quite find the right balance between buoyant wit and philosophical discourse. “You Never Can Tell” is intended as a response to Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” refracting that play’s themes of love, class, family, and society through a feminist lens. While Wilde was more playful in his commentary, Shaw was savagely critical of the British society of the era.
The complicated plot involves a mother and her three children who become reacquainted with their estranged father while vacationing at a seaside resort where the oldest child is courted by a local dentist, who happens to rent his room from their father. Typical farcical mayhem ensues, though much of the play is presented as a drama rather than a comedy.
Though later Shaw plays like “Pygmalion” perfectly blend comedy and social criticism, “You Never Can Tell” alternates between scenes of comedy and scenes of philosophy. The contrast can feel jarring to an audience unless a production is given the lightest possible touch.
Lightness, however, is not a quality to which this production can lay claim. In fact, director Lisa Peterson has pushed every member of her 9-person ensemble to ham it up, and they do. Many of the cast members don’t so much chew the scenery as attempt to swallow it whole. For the comical scenes, this approach is successful, but it makes the more serious moments tedious and dull.
The physical production could hardly be better. Director Lisa Peterson’s staging looks great on Erik Flatmo’s impressionistic set, which is wonderfully evocative without being painstakingly detailed, and Melissa Torch’s costumes are candy-colored delights.
Khalil Davis and Lance Gardner are fabulous as Dolly and Philip, the two troublemaking youngest children. Their antics, which resemble circus clowns in their cartoonish quality and physical involvement, are highly amusing, and lift the play whenever they are onstage. The real star turn, however, is Danny Scheie as Walter, a waiter who seems to appear whenever he is needed to help the characters or make the audience laugh. Doing his best impersonation of a leprechaun, his performance is campy bliss. He makes the word “chardonnay” far funnier than you ever thought possible.
Unfortunately, this overwrought style of performing is maintained when the play becomes serious, and to see actors performing 19th century philosophical dialogue as though it were Greek tragedy makes the play feel far more logorrheic than necessary. Moments that should inspire intellectual engagement instead feel like white noise, and the evening drags as a result. A more naturalistic touch might have made the comedy less funny, but would have brought about a tonal consistency that could work well.
Bizarrely, this production has also reset the play from a seaside British town to a coastal city in California. Resetting a play is always a risky decision. In this case, the relocation seems particularly harmful. Shaw’s wit, mannerisms, and criticisms are all very pointedly British, and to take away that element of the show not only makes much of his dialogue sound out of place, but also dulls any societal criticism that Shaw was trying to make. His plays were extremely timely in his day, and to remove them from their context is like taking “Hamilton” and setting it in feudal Japan.
It’s a shame that the overall production fails to be fully effective, as there are many excellent elements. Unfortunately, there’s very little to be done when a production’s interpretation of material is wrong-headed, and thus the evening just doesn’t click as well as it should.
“You Never Can Tell” continues at The Bruns Amphitheater through September 4. For further information, click here.
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“You Never Can Tell” by George Bernard Shaw. Produced by California Shakespeare Theater. Director: Lisa Peterson. Scenic Designer: Erik Flatmo. Costume Designer: Melissa Torchia. Lighting Designer: York Kennedy. Sound Designer, Music Director: Paul James Prendergast. Production Stage Manager: Laxmi Kumaran.
Valentine: Matthew Baldiga. Mrs. Clandon: Elizabeth Carter. Dolly: Khalia Davis. Finch McComas: Anthony Fusco. Philip: Lance Gardner. Walter: Danny Scheie. Fergus Crampton: Michael Torres. Gloria: Sabina Zuniga Varela. Bohun: Parlor Maid, Young Waiter: Liam Vincent