AS Shawfest moves into its closing weekend, there are three chances left -- tonight, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night -- to give your mind and conscience a bracing workout with Major Barbara, one of George Bernard Shaw's most controversial plays.
Hand it to Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre, a community troupe, for tackling this dense, idea-packed 1905 comedy/drama with a 14-member cast. It's a marathon that clocks in at three hours including intermission.
The characters debate at length about religion, morality, war, class privilege and social engineering. But this provocative, irony-laced work still manages to be entertaining, and occasionally very funny. While some plays in the festival have come across as dusty relics, Major Barbara remains fiercely relevant.
Andrew Undershaft, the millionaire munitions giant who is in bed with government and owns media outlets, is alive and well in today's military-industrial complex. The question of whether a charity should accept donations (payoffs?) from the very corporations that are major contributors to the ills it fights -- think Manitoba Lotteries funding programs for gambling addicts -- is still pertinent.
The title character, Barbara, is one of Shaw's highly intelligent, driven young women. Despite being from an upper-class family, she's a spunky Salvation Army major who dedicates herself to saving souls at a soup kitchen in the London slums.
Barbara has had her privileged upbringing bankrolled by an "immoral" parent -- her estranged father, the super-capitalist Undershaft. He's a self-proclaimed "manufacturer of mutilation and murder" who cheerfully sells torpedoes and cannons to the highest bidder.
Barbara and her two siblings haven't seen their father since they were babies. They're re-introduced to him when their class-conscious mother seeks his financial support as each heads into marriage.
Undershaft immediately recognizes Barbara's strength and smarts, and those of her fiancé Adolphus, an eccentric professor. He sets out to convert them to his philosophy that "money and gunpowder" are the keys to attaining higher ideals like justice and peace. But Barbara is determined to wash the blood off her father's hands and save his soul.
Ali Tataryn as the passionate Barbara, Terry Zimmerly as the quirky, animated Adolphus, and especially Jeff Madden as the eloquent, self-possessed Undershaft, deliver first-rate performances. Other standouts are Matthew Stefanson as Barbara's priggish brother, Curt Krahn as the ruffian Bill Walker, Adam Hurtig as the nitwit Charles, and Monica Reis as Mrs. Baines, a Salvation Army officer.