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Lines of the Times 

Shaw's 70-year-old Apple Cart still has plenty to say about modern-day democracy, globalization, and corporate scams

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
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The Apple Cart is not what you'd think -- a play about fruit vendors -- but a witty, long-winded argument about democracy by George Bernard Shaw that pits a constitutional monarch against a bickering Cabinet of parliamentary ministers in a back-room struggle for power. The country in question comes amusingly close to finding itself ruled, again, by a king. The king threatens to upset democracy's apple cart, which was a shaky enough vehicle when Shaw wrote the play (in 1929), and the surprising thing is that 70-odd years don't seem to have improved the old, straining struts or rickety wooden wheels.

Of course, Shaw was a prophet. He set The Apple Cart "20 years into the future" (of any given production), even though the idea of a king ruling a European democracy was bound to be even more preposterous by 1949 than it was at the play's inception. In fact the idea was so bizarre that early critics misunderstood Shaw and accused him of being a royalist. "In Dresden the performance was actually prohibited as a blasphemy against Democracy," Shaw wrote in his preface to the play.

He did blaspheme against democracy, but not in favor of kings: Shaw just wanted to point out a few intractable problems. His King Magnus is a suave and popular man who considers himself a check on "the encroachments of big business" in Parliament. But the prime minister, Proteus, and his Cabinet have gotten sick of watching the king use his influence against them (he plants stories in the papers and wields his veto if he doesn't like their lawmaking). When they try to lever the king into an impotent ceremonial position, Magnus answers by proposing to ditch his throne and run for prime minister. An election, you'd think, would be the most democratic solution, but Proteus backs down. He's afraid of losing his seat to a more popular man, and the attempted coup in the name of the people has been exposed as a crass bid for power.

The plot is a contraption, sure, but it hasn't lost its timeliness. Most of the speeches could be delivered tomorrow by any honest politician. When Proteus brags to the king that "we have abolished poverty and hardship. ... We have the people of England in comfort -- solid, middle-class comfort! -- at our backs," Magnus answers, "No, we have not abolished poverty and hardship. Our big-business men have abolished them. But how? By sending our capital abroad to places where poverty and hardship still exist: in other words, where labor is cheap."

So globalization is nothing new, and neither is Enron. Listen to this speech by Lysistrata, Shaw's "powermistress royal," or energy commissioner: "I have to organize and administer all the motor power in the country for the good of the country. ... I have to see that every little sewing machine in the Hebrides has its stream of driving power on tap from a switch in the wall as punctually as the great thundering dynamos of our big industrial plants. I do it; but it costs twice as much as it should. Why? Because every new invention is bought up and suppressed by Breakages Ltd. Every breakdown, every accident, every smash and crash, is a job for them. ... Our national repair bill runs up to hundreds of millions."

The scams may be different, but the stink hasn't changed.

This play is Women in Time's second show at the Berkeley City Club, where the Aurora Theatre used to live, and the new troupe is following the old one's tradition of putting on solid, lively Shaw. David Winter is a cool and elegant King Magnus, in his pale suit and white shoes; Louis Parnell plays the ambitious blowhard Boanerges (who also wants to be prime minister) with a surprising but workable Scottish accent; and Trish Mulholland is tight-jawed and crisp as the queen, in pearls and a light avocado ensemble.

Director Jennifer Wagner solves the 20-years-in-the-future problem with a few nods to technology (a wristwatch that controls a sort of MP3 system) and gender roles (a couple of male characters are female), but otherwise the year 2022 looks Edwardian, with orchids and wooden furniture and a leather, thronelike seat for the king. "The fabrics worn reflect global warming and an increased trade with Asia," say Wagner's notes. Maybe so. But costume designer Taisia Nikonischenko has put everyone in nicely understated clothes that don't suggest any particular era, and don't distract from the play.

The Apple Cart's only problem is that it's too long. For some reason every major play in Berkeley right now has two intermissions -- Homebody/Kabul, The Entertainer, and this one -- which can be hard on a critic's behind. I don't mean to complain; three big shows in one neighborhood is a sign of strong ambition. But Shaw, in his old age, found it difficult to write a play under three hours long, and even his timeless banter could stand some careful editing.

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