Given recent political debates on socialism and taxing the wealthy in the U.S., staging a play that features both socialist and wealthy characters would seem like a coup in terms of timing.
But sometimes good timing results more by chance than intention.
“I’ve had this play on my list of things I’ve been interested in doing for about 10 years,” said theatre professor Josh Machamer, who will direct “Smash” at Cal Poly this weekend.
The comical play is the third and final show for the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department’s 2010-11 main stage season, following the Greek tragedy-inspired “Antigone and Letters to Soldiers Lost” and “Falsettos,” a musical.
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In the play, set in 1910, a millionaire socialist, Sidney Trefusis, leaves his new bride to pursue his plans of overthrowing the British government. Disguised as a groundskeeper, Trefusis arrives at an all-girls college with a plan to plant the seeds of radical Socialism into young minds. Yet, while there, student Agatha Wylie — coincidentally, the cousin of Trefusis’s wife — falls in love with him.
The play was written by Jeffrey Hatcher and loosely based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1883 novel, “An Unsocial Socialist.”
Shaw himself was a socialist, whose writings often used comedy to make his political points more palatable. In his 1996 adaptation, which uses about a quarter of the play’s content, Hatcher made Shaw’s story more of a sardonic farce than a polemic.
“Because this novel doesn’t work in many ways, I was much freer to take what does hold up and discard the rest,” Hatcher told the Seattle Times when the play first came out. “There isn’t going to be a book-reading audience out there to rise up and shout, ‘Look what you’ve done to poor Bernard’s masterpiece!’”
While Shaw is famous for his plays — especially “Pygmalion” — he started out writing novels. Yet, the Scottish-born Shaw, who died in 1950, had little success as a novelist, compelling him to write his books off as “all jejune and rotten.”
Still, Hatcher, who has adapted several old novels into plays, was impressed enough to transform Shaw’s book into a stage work.
“I had a couple of friends who did adaptations of old books or old plays,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2000. “And I thought, ‘Gee, I ought to get into this, because you can work with terrific authors and they’re dead, so they can’t tell you what to do.’ ”
Hatcher’s take on “An Unsocial Socialist,” Machamer said, pokes fun at both socialists and capitalists.
“The play calls into question the obsessiveness of our want to be either one or the other,” he said.
The play also makes light of the class system, British manners and the academic setting — the last of which especially resonates with college crowds.
“It think it really speaks to our audience,” Machamer said.
More than 40 Cal Poly students will take part in the production, ten of them as actors.
Because the play takes place in England, Machamer hired a dialect coach from Los Angeles to help the student actors with their upper-crust British accents, which has been fun for the actors.
“It gives them permission to love language and words in a way we don’t necessarily cultivate,” Machamer said.
The Theatre and Dance Department has a committee that chooses the three plays it puts on each year, Machamer said.
“Each of us has a list of 10 to 20 plays at any given time,” he said.
Which plays they do depends on perceived student and audience needs. After a Greek tragedy and a musical, Machamer said, “Smash” represented a nice shift for students.
“I think it addresses stylized comedy they haven’t necessarily been exposed to,” he said.
At the same time, it’s a play that will compel the members of the audience to think about things like socialism.
“If people come to a play, and it doesn’t invite them to talk to their neighbors or the world out there,” Machamer said, “I don’t think we’ve done our job.”