Long-winded is a term that could justifiably be applied to George Bernard Shaw -- but not at Theatre Hopkins.
That's because director Suzanne Pratt has put together an anthology of Shaw shorts, or as she's calling them, Shaw: Four Starters. The program consists of prologues and/or first acts of four Shaw plays, from the familiar (Arms and the Man) to the semi-obscure (Too True to Be Good).
There's a degree of timeliness to Pratt's selections -- war, leadership and health care (even the efficacy of flu shots) are among the topics explored. But the "starters" are also linked by a timeless theme -- the importance of facing life realistically and living it to the fullest.
The most amusingly imaginative of the four is the first act of Too True to Be Good (1932), which includes the fanciful character of Microbe. The act is set in the bedroom of a patient (Molly Moores) whose over-protective mother (hand-wringing Amy Jo Shapiro) has turned her into an invalid.
The Microbe, played by Tony Colavito in maroon silk pajamas that match the patient's, whines that it is the patient who has infected him. The doctor (Jassim Farukhi) confesses that patients cure themselves, he merely takes credit. And, his theory proves accurate when a burglar (Jonas Grey) bursts into the room and Moores decks the thief with some self-defense moves that suggest she's far from sick.
Claiming to also be a curate, the burglar delivers a sermon lambasting those who cry wolf by implementing excessive security measures: "They who cry Safety First never cross the street; the empires which sacrifice life to security find it in the grave. For me Safety Last; and Forward, Forward, always."
The act ends with the Microbe declaring: "The play is now virtually over; but the characters will discuss it at great length for two acts more."
As neatly self-contained as this act is, the first act of Arms and the Man (1894) leaves the audience wanting more -- perhaps because it's a better constructed script. The situation here concerns a young woman (girlish Laurel Burggraf) whose silly romantic notions about warfare and bravery are dashed by the sudden appearance of an all-too-authentic, bedraggled mercenary (Colavito again, this time as a weary warrior).
A further example of Shaw's proclivity for overturning expectations comes in the prologue to his rare children's play, Androcles and the Lion (1912). In this case, a fierce lion (Farukhi) is reduced to a mewling pussycat by a thorn in its paw. The prologue ends with Androcles (Colavito) evincing a closer bond for the lion than for his wife (Shapiro).
Theatre Hopkins' production ends with the first act of Caesar and Cleopatra (written in 1898) and one of two prologues he wrote for the play. In this prologue, the Sun god, Ra (Grey), spouts prophetic Shavian warnings on the order of: "Beware, ye, who would all be Pompeys if ye dared; for war is a wolf that may come to your own door."
This leads to the Act One, in which Caesar (Robert Riggs) gives a young, immature Cleopatra (Kateri Chambers) lessons in how to act like a leader. They are lessons that could be summed up in the maxim: Fake it till you make it.
All in all, Shaw: Four Starters, as its title suggests, is like an entire meal of hors d'oeuvres, or to be au current, it's a Shavian tapas bar. The flavors and presentations come together surprisingly well, and even the Shaw-phobic should find these small servings easy to swallow.
Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 14. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-516-7159.
Olney's new season
Olney Theatre Center has announced a 2005 season that is as ambitious in terms of venues as productions. Not only will the seven-show lineup use the center's historic main stage and its flexible Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, but in August, Olney will inaugurate its new $7.5 million, 450-seat main stage with a production of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker.
Here's the full season: Saint Joan, Shaw's take on Joan of Arc (Feb. 23-March 20); Omnium Gatherum, Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' post-9/11 satire, set at a dinner party (March 30-April 24); Lend Me a Tenor, Ken Ludwig's farce about a Cleveland production of Verdi's Otello (May 11-June 5); La Tragedie de Carmen, a return engagement of Peter Brook's adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera (June 22-July 17); The Miracle Worker (Aug. 10-Sept. 4); Morning's at Seven, Paul Osborn's comedy about four aging sisters (Oct. 5-30); and Oliver!, Lionel Bart's Oliver Twist musical (Nov. 16-Dec. 11).
For information, call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olney theatre.org.