On the Rocks | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

On the Rocks 

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On the Rocks, ShawChicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center. George Bernard Shaw's 1933 feast of reason is exhaustive and exhausting. Nearly three hours of provocative paradoxes, it plays as if it were compiled from various letters to the editor, as Shaw uncertainly melds uninspired domestic drama with political debate. Though the characters opine throughout on whether Depression-era England--suffering from unemployment, proletarian protests, and inflation--will turn to fascism or communism or just muddle through, at the exasperating end we still don't know. However, Shaw's portrait of a ruling class that demands sacrifices from everyone but itself is uncannily contemporary and disturbing.

Much like the current prime minister, Sir Arthur Chavender (an intricately dotty Duane Sharp) is burdened with fractious opposition, unpopular policies, and bad health (mental, in this case). His Downing Street cabinet room holds a rogues' gallery of eccentric representatives--firebrand alderwoman, socialist peer, tenant-persecuting Tory, fascist party leader--as well as the PM's undutiful daughter, apolitical helpmate, and scandal-seeking son. Though nothing of interest happens, everything is talked over from every angle.

What would be insufferably static in a full production is grist for the mill of ShawChicago in this perfectly modulated concert reading, skillfully orchestrated by Robert Scogin for his eloquent 15-member ensemble. There's more delicious acting in this staging of Shaw's magnificent muddle, especially Tony Dobrowolski's deadpan diatribe on how democracy destroyed its dreams, than many theaters exhibit in an entire season.

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