Link to longevity 

Rarely-produced epic takes Theater Emory Back to Methuselah

YOU MAY KNOW GEORGE BERNARD SHAW as a witty, crusading English playwright fiercely dedicated to social causes, if a bit in love with the sound of his own formidable voice. You have no idea.

Shaw's time-tripping fantasia Back to Methuselah spans from the Garden of Eden to the year 31,920 A.D, and is so long and peculiar that it's been staged scarcely a dozen times since being written 80 years ago. Theater Emory presents the play over two nights, and at more than six-and-a-half hours Methuselah is undeniably a rare experience, once that's both thought-provoking and seat-fatiguing.

Back to Methuselah is comprised of five one-act plays of at least an hour each. "In the Beginning" commences with Adam (Travis Sentell) and Eve (Maia Knispel), who choose to cast off their immortality in favor of sexual reproduction, although their son Cain (Matt Arth) will establish humanity's worst traits. It comes across like the fruits of a collegiate bull session as to what the Garden of Eden story represents.

"The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas" offers a nice example of Shaw's intellectually-driven, drawing-room comedy, with two learned siblings (John Ammerman and Kim M. Shipley) suggesting that through willpower, people can live for hundreds of years instead of dying at an immature three score and ten. Set just after World War I, when Shaw wrote the play, it hinges too heavily on obscure politics of the period, with Tom Key and Chris Kayser as squabbling former prime ministers.

Citizens begin showing signs of extended lives in "The Thing Happens," set in 2170 A.D., when advisors to the president of the British Islands (a hilariously fatuous Kayser) discover their presence. Shaw may have been too caught up in the causes of his day to extrapolate a convincing future, as here he imagines a society that's racially integrated, but far from color-blind: "Chinese and Negresses" do the administrative work of British government. The head bureaucrat, Confucius (Ammerman), is played completely as a Charlie-Chan-style stereotype, and at one point is called a "yellow abomination."

Ammerman could have played the role as less of a caricature, but the production wants to put Shaw in context, so "Confucius" appears as he would have on a stage in the 1920s. Similarly, Adam and Eve have English accents and Stuart Culpepper, as Shaw himself, reads contemporaneous speeches and letters to introduce the plays.

In that spirit "The Tragedy of the Elderly Gentleman" appears, oddly, as a reading of Shaw's Fabian Society. Despite lively work by Culpepper as an aging "short-liver" and Brenda Bynum as a young "long-liver," it's the deadliest and dullest of the five plays, with ordinary humans treated like children in the Ireland of 3000 A.D.

"As Far as Thought Can Reach" restores our interest, with humans having evolved beyond petty concerns and even childbirth: We see a newborn (vivacious Taylor Dooley) hatch fully grown from a giant egg. But when a young artist creates a pair of humans (who resemble a fin-de-siecle English couple), the nirvana-seeking Ancients must intervene.

Back to Methuselah has no through-line of character and plot, with the sections linked by Shaw's rather bizarre notions of longevity, as well as some effectively Swiftian satire on art, war, politics and human nature. Theater Emory uses considerable ingenuity in staging Methuselah, but despite its flashes of brilliance, its many airy debates get the better of it. Individual sections can be fascinating, but life is too short for seeing the whole thing.

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