Theater Review: “The Man of Destiny” — A Shavian McGuffin

George Bernard Shaw’s The Man of Destiny could be an evening of delight with a frisson of cerebral exercise.

The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through August 26.

Tom Frey and Bridget Beirne in the Peterborough Players production of “The Man of Destiny.” Photo: Will Howell.

By Jim Kates

George Bernard Shaw’s 1895 play The Man of Destiny does not get produced as often as the other of his “plays pleasant,”and for good reason. While most of Shaw’s theater builds on paradox and argument, the cut and thrust of thought artfully transformed into actual drama, this brief anecdote in the rising life of Napoleon Bonaparte relies on what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGufffin — a plot device that serves no real purpose except to get the action going. In this case, it is a packet of compromising papers. These spark a duel of wits between the French general (Tom Frey) and a Lady (Bridget Beirne) who comes out of nowhere to tease and confront him.

Still, this is Shaw, a writer that at his most perfunctory can be barrels of intellectual and dramatic fun. There is room for the twenty-six year old Napoleon, who has just won the battle of Lodi in 1796, and who has not yet begun to see himself as a potential emperor, to develop character, to become the man he will be, with “a devouring devil inside you who must be fed with action and victory — gorged with them night and day — who makes you pay, with the sweat of your brain and body, weeks of Herculean toil for ten minutes of enjoyment — who is at once your slave and your tyrant, your genius and your doom — who brings you a crown in one hand and the oar of a galley slave in the other — who shows you all the kingdoms of the earth and offers to make you their master on condition that you become their servant!”

There are compelling moments and pyrotechnical dialogue in The Man of Destiny. In the brief second act the playwright carves out an occasion for a seemingly irrelevant riff on Napoleon’s reported disdainful quip (actually Adam Smith’s, if anyone cares) that England is “a nation of shopkeepers,” among other typically Shavian aria-like discourses.

The Man of Destiny could be an evening of delight with a frisson of cerebral exercise.

But the Peterborough Players’ production has one big problem — an elephant in the room, a bull in a china shop — Tom Frey. Frey bellows his way through the part of the future emperor with little regard for the meaning of what he is saying, the rhythm of the language he has been given to speak, or the sensibilities of the fellow actors with whom he may be expected to inter-act. His voice knows only a single register — monotonously loud. He speaks with (pause) no regard for the flow and (pause) connection of one word (pause) with another.

Around him Brigitte Beirne deploys her own fine skill with word and gesture — she can make Buster-Keaton-like comedy out of a still face, or by crossing her arms on her breast — in vain. She can not by herself raise the tension between her and Frey’s Corsican.

Around Frey Will Champion can play the very model of the Englishman of Shaw’s attack (even though the character is that of a French lieutenant) to paradoxical near perfection, but actor’s subtlety provides only small relief.

Around him, Kraig Swartz as the only other named character in The Man of Destiny (Giuseppe Grandi — the principal foil for Napoleon’s ambition) can ooze northern Italian innkeeperness behind a false beard and an even stagier comic accent to great liveliness. But the stage dies a little when he leaves it. Around this Napoleon a chorus of peasants can sing and dance to stereotypical distraction — they have been given names in this production and come from the Players’ second company — underlining the operatic structure of Shaw’s tactics. This distraction is most blessedly welcome when it comes. But it comes, and goes.

Around Frey’s bombast Emmy Boisvert has designed a set of Lombard charm that shows delicacy of spirit and regard for both the theatrical environment and the landscape it’s supposed to represent. We take refuge in its nuance. And within this charming setting Gus Kaikkonen has directed a production that moves with its own swiftness and lightness of touch. All, all, to no avail.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

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