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George Bernard Shaw’s 6-Hour ‘Beast’? She’s All In







“Sweets” again.


In the space of less than an hour, these were just a few of the terms of endearment lobbed from the dimly lit seats of the Festival Theater, one of the three venues that make up the Shaw Festival campus.

Tech rehearsals — the millisecond-by-millisecond calibration of every lighting cue and sound effect — can sap the will of even the hardiest theater folk. But Kimberley Rampersad, the issuer of those kind words, wasn’t having it one recent afternoon. Not with the festival’s marquee event entrusted to her — on just her second time directing here.

A bronze statue of George Bernard Shaw may stand in the center of this bucolic town 20 miles north of Niagara Falls, but only two plays by the festival’s namesake are on offer in this year’s 11-play season.

Some would argue, however, that there are actually three Shaws in a 12-play season. Because one of the two — the one that Ms. Rampersad was overseeing — is the “glorious beast” (to use her phrase) known as “Man and Superman,” which took Shaw a decade to see mounted in its entirety. Ms. Rampersad had her work cut out for her.

The play’s 1905 premiere came minus its third act, an extended dream sequence known as “Don Juan in Hell,” in which four of the play’s characters morph into their 16th-century forebears. Several theater companies have embraced Act III’s blend of philosophical phantasmagoria and staged it on its own; others have jettisoned it and zipped ahead to the fourth and final act. Many others have taken one look at the published script (complete with a 58-page appendix devoted to the lead character’s “Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion”) and opted for “Pygmalion” instead.

The Shaw Festival, however, is all in — with a full six hours (including a lunch break) given over to Shaw’s musings on anarchy, proto-feminism, the Fabian Society and many, many, many other ideas. It began last weekend and will be performed a total of 17 times through Oct. 5.

“‘Man and Superman’ is one of the reasons I took this job,” said Tim Carroll, who became artistic director of the festival in 2017. “I really think it’s one of the great things made by a human, right up there with [Bach’s] B minor Mass and ‘The Magic Flute.’”

But what human should direct it? Here Mr. Carroll’s decision-making process was informed by his own experience working for Mark Rylance at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London.

“Early in my time there, Mark approached me about what I wanted to do the following year, before he saw what I did,” Mr. Carroll recalled. “I asked him, ‘Don’t you want to see how this goes first?’ And he said, ‘I trust you.’

“I’ve been a freelancer most of my life, and I came here determined not to forget how that feels.”

Enter Ms. Rampersad, a midcareer dancer and choreographer from Winnipeg who first came to the festival in 2015 to appear in both “Sweet Charity” and “Pygmalion.” (The use of repertory casting, a hallmark of the festival, means all 13 “Man and Superman” cast members are also appearing in either “Cyrano de Bergerac” or Howard Barker’s scabrous play “Victory” — though never on the same day.)

She returned in 2017 as one of the festival’s intern directors, where she assisted Mr. Carroll on Shaw’s audience-friendly “Androcles and the Lion.” On the strength of this apprentice work, he asked her to direct the following season’s lunchtime one-act, “O’Flaherty V.C.,” also by Shaw. (He also cast her in “Grand Hotel” that year.)

Then, before “O’Flaherty” even opened, he followed Mr. Rylance’s example and offered her “Man and Superman.”

“She’s a first-class motivator and setter of example,” Mr. Carroll said. “And she clicked with Bernard Shaw right away, as I learned from ‘Androcles.’”

Ms. Rampersad, who began her shift to directing about a decade ago when she sensed the window for dancing jobs begin to shrink, said this connection to all things Shavian didn’t happen overnight. As she moved from performing Shaw to directing Shaw, she assigned herself a reading list of one play a week for several months. (“Man and Superman” took a bit longer, she admits.)

“He’s an industry,” she said of Shaw, “but he’s also a lens on the world. And every time we solve one of his mysteries in the rehearsal room, two new ones pop up.”

And then there’s the 80-minute mystery known as “Don Juan in Hell,” which many Shaw scholars have argued fares better as its own entity. Ms. Rampersad disagrees.

“It adds the magic to the play,” she said. “It adds the cosmos, which then gives real gravitas to Act IV. To me, it’s a golden thread that would be missing from this tapestry if it wasn’t there.”

Finding room for the magic but also the logic is where Ms. Rampersad’s gifts come to the forefront, said Sara Topham, who plays the enigmatic female lead in “Man and Superman.”

“Kim has an insatiable drive for explanation, which is vital for any director,” Ms. Topham said. “The only word I can think of to describe her is ‘extraordinary.’”

Ms. Topham’s co-star Gray Powell also commended Ms. Rampersad’s knack for making these idea-stuffed plays accessible to the audience. “The clarity of the arguments is the toughest thing about Shaw — they need to sound like real thoughts happening in real time,” he said. “And Kim really gets that.”

Mr. Carroll’s faith in her surfaced in another way this year: He and his associate artistic director, Kate Hennig, created the new position of intern artistic director. “Kate and I were looking at the Canadian theater landscape,” he said, “and we thought, ‘We really should be setting Kim up to land one of those big jobs.’”

She is automatically invited to every one of Mr. Carroll’s meetings — there are many — and the two meet at least once a week to discuss big-picture ideas as well as scheduling minutiae. (Not that her other skills have been forgotten: Ms. Rampersad will appear in the festival’s “Holiday Inn” this winter and then direct as well as choreograph “Gypsy” here in 2020.)

“It is an opportunity for me to learn what it means to hold spaces for other people,” she said of the new position. “The role of artistic director is where my art meets my politics.”

But first Ms. Rampersad needs to wrangle Shaw’s towering work — which she described as about “getting off on the rigor of being your best self and getting others to be their best selves” — up from hell and back to earth. And as she slips in and out of all (or at least a fair number) of those meetings, she said she returns to “Man and Superman” buoyed by her boss’s rallying cry, one that emphasizes both rigor and abandon.

“Tim’s like, ‘Go, go! Be excellent, but go!’”

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