The title character doesn't show up for "An Evening with George Bernard Shaw," now playing at the Arts Council Center in Thousand Oaks. After all, the Irish playwright and critic has been dead since 1950.
Whether he's there in spirit is another matter altogether. The answer, based on the opening night show: It depends on how badly Shaw's spirit needs a place to light for a couple of weekend hours.
Producer/director/actor Michael Jordan (who also helps change scenery, sells tickets at the door and possibly bakes the intermission cookies) has selected four of Shaw's one-act plays, written between 1915-1933. He directed all but the one he stars in, which is directed by Mary Ruberry, who appears in one of the others.
Two of the plays examine romantic relationships. "Village Wooing," from 1933, introduces us to a stuffy, introverted writer of travel books and a relentlessly cheerful shop girl; if this sounds like a variation on Shaw's 1912 "Pygmalion," you're right, except the misogynistic Shaw had mellowed somewhat in the interim. The second romance, "Overruled," sounds like Shaw imitating Noel Coward's sophisticated, vinegary romantic comedies--except the Shaw play, written in 1915, predates Coward.
The third playlet, "Augustus Does His Bit," finds a pompous British army officer undone by a wily lady, with some perceptive commentary on war and warriors adding substance. And the opening skit, "Interlude at the Playhouse," has the producer and his wife introducing a play with amusing results; it's cleverly enough mounted that, at first, we might not realize that the show has actually begun.
The material ages well enough, as these things go, and Jordan and his troupe are to be commended for offering something a little out of the ordinary, and for presenting the plays with enthusiasm. The main drawback here is a lack of consistent tone.
Actors juxtapose English, mid-Atlantic and American accents freely, for instance, and local Ventura County references are tossed in willy-nilly, while some archaic or too-English terms are left for the audience to figure out.
In the first sketch, a theater manager explains that we--the current audience--are in a building whose land is listed in the Domesday Book. That would place us on English ground recorded during the term of William the Conqueror, but there's also a reference to the Thousand Oaks City Council; though the skit was first produced (and presumably takes place) in 1923, Jordan tosses in a mention of Mel Gibson.
If one insisted on making it contemporary with local references, how about putting the theater on a Spanish land grant? After all, the Performing Arts Center, where this production is being held, is something of a local landmark in its own right. At least two of the other one-acts in this presentation could also be updated and moved to Southern California.
The acting varies from quite good (in a stiff, drawing-room comedy sort of way) to adequate. Suzanne McNabb as the country girl in "Village Wooing" is a standout, although from her accent and attitude one might expect for her to break out at any moment into a chorus of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly."
Nels Jorgensen portrays the theater manager and the army officer with appropriate dignity; Pamela Canton, Bernard Hamel, Ross Collins and Mary Ruberry are the two sets of married couples in "Overruled." Mark Goles, the production's stage manager, appears in three minor roles, the first of which deserves special commendation for the sheer physical exertion involved.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"An Evening with George Bernard Shaw" continues its weekend performances through Feb. 24 at the Arts Council Center, 482 Greenmeadow Road, in Thousand Oaks. Show times are 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights; 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $8; $7 for students and seniors. For reservations or further information, call (805) 499-4355.