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Cal Shakes Review: You Never Can Tell by George Bernard Shaw

Friday, September 9, 2016 - 12:33

Shaw is known for witty, talky satires of what was perceived as the results of rapid social change (though what era has not perceived itself as assaulted by rapid social change?) and in particular, shifts in the expectations and perceptions of women's role in society. Although I've often seen Shaw's take spun as progressive and feminist, I've always felt that his female characters who stood up for the ideals of independence and self-determination seem to come in for the sharpest lampooning, and often seem to be the targets of ridicule for those ideals. Not a broad, openly misogynistic ridicule, but more of a smirking "I know what women really want" sort of ridicule.

"You Never Can Tell" features two of these targets: Mrs. Clandon, a feminist writer and single mother who has supported her family with lectures and high-minded educational tracts about how to live a progressive "20th century" life, and her eldest daughter, Gloria, who has grown up believing in those ideals and now finds them challenged by the romantic advances of a suave dentist. The action takes place in a seaside resort (translated, in the Cal Shakes production, to the Santa Cruz boardwalk) with an unexpected encounter with Mrs. Clandon's estranged husband, and the slapstick class-comedy interactions of an overly humble waiter and his upwardly-moble son, a judge.

Shaw has an undeniable way with snappy dialogue and social comedy. The puckish hijinks of Clandon's two young children throw all the other characters off balance to enable the drama. The boundary-transgressive character of the waiter is a showcase for the talents of Cal Shakes' perennial Fool, Danny Scheie (although the more often I see him in this sort of role, the more he always seems to be playing the same character over and over again). But in this day and age, it's very hard to view the dentist's courtship of Gloria as romantic comedy rather than as manipulative gaslighting with no respect for her as a human being of equal significance.

An enjoyable performance from a talented cast and crew, but not a play that strikes me as being of continuing impact and significance (especially in contrast to the previous performance, "Fences"), rather a period piece that must be appreciated "in the context of its time".