Barbara Oliver and Aurora Theatre have a long history with George Bernard Shaw, so it seems fitting that her last production as Aurora’s founding artistic director is something Shavian. And with Man of Destiny, a minor early (1897) comedy about a young Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver is going out not with a bang but with a giggle.
Dressed in a long leather trench coat and black beret by costumer Clare Henkel, Jeffrey Bihr opens with an introduction that Shaw wrote not as part of the performed play but as a bit of scene-setting for the reader. Oliver’s decision to turn it into a monologue is interesting for the now-forgotten historical context and some deliciously timely stuff about the French not meaning to attack the Italians so much as “rescue them from the tyranny of their Austrian conquerors, and confer republican institutions on them” — so long as you’re really paying attention. But Bihr’s attempt to bring out the humor in the introduction distracts from the text and makes it sound less clever than it is. Bihr’s dramatic transformation from thoroughly modern narrator to period dress puts him in a tough spot, because it makes his amiable innkeeper Giuseppe seem like a man to watch, a great expectation to which this minor role can’t possibly live up. Once you get over the buildup, however, he’s quite good.
Lounging in Greg Dunham’s lovely suggestion of a rustic Italian courtyard, Napoleon is still a 27-year-old general battling the Austrians in Italy when he finds himself embroiled in a battle of wits with a brilliant woman who has stolen some letters intended for him. Stacy Ross’ performance as the Strange Lady, a sort of 18th-century Brigid O’Shaughnessy, is an absolute triumph. You can see the gears turning in her head as she shifts tactics, her whole demeanor changing every time Napoleon turns toward or away from her, all lingering glances and faux fluster. Her every sentence is a whirlwind of gambits, switching rapidly between pleading, fearful, coy, seductive, cocky, contemptuous, breathless, and imperious. She runs rings around Napoleon, even getting him to demand that she take the letters back.
Capturing the callow pretentiousness of a great man who is not yet great, T. Edward Webster serves as an admirable straight man, powerful in his self-assurance but vulnerable in his puffed-up pride. He doesn’t seem quite short enough for Napoleon until the very tall Craig Neibaur, playing the hapless (and nameless) Lieutenant who first falls prey to the Lady’s wiles, shows up. Neibaur’s insubordinate cluelessness is hilarious, though at times he seems in danger of cracking up both himself and Napoleon. At first Webster’s Napoleon just comes off as a prig, but his dizzying back-and-forth with Ross is a joy to behold; it’s only when he starts clowning around on his own that the general stumbles. His puckish delight in dissecting the English character, when he gets a comic monologue of his own near the end, is unbecoming for Napoleon. Admittedly, the speech is sheer indulgence on Shaw’s part, just a chance for him to riff on a Napoleon quotation (“The English are a nation of shopkeepers”), to get his digs in rather than to move the plot along, but perhaps consequently it’s the best-remembered bit in the play.