“Man and Superman,” which opens on Friday, October 6, delves into themes ranging from politics and American millionaires to predatory women, motherhood and moral progress. The two central characters, Ann Whitefield and Jack Tanner — played by Madison Hart (M.F.A. ’18) and Alan Brincks (M.F.A. ’18) — engage in a complex game of cat-and-mouse, as the opinionated and independent Jack tries to fend off the calculated advances of Ann and what Shaw dubs the “Life Force.”
Dramatug Elizabeth Keel (M.F.A. ’18) speaks to Hart and Brincks about their high-energy performances, and what they are most looking forward to at the premiere. Learn more in her Q&A below!
Elizabeth: I’d love to start by asking you what it was about “Man and Superman” that drew you to these roles?
Madison (Ann Whitefield): I have read Shaw, but I have never gotten to act in one of his pieces before. Something I love about his writing is that feels very much like champagne in the blood. It has that fizzy, sparkling life to it. And there’s the wit! Not only masculine wit, but strong, feminine wit from women who are not only able to keep up with the men, but also outrace them!
Alan (Jack Tanner): For me, it was the arguments that Jack has about his views on the world and women, and balancing things out. I admired Shaw’s ideas of striving for something better than yourself as a human, not necessarily as a man or a woman, but as a human, who could advance society.
Speaking of wit, the show is subtitled as “A Comedy and A Philosophy.” Those are two very different things! How are you navigating finding the humor while mastering Shaw’s embellished language?
AB: It is a lot of language, yes! But that’s the fun of it. How can I make this work? How can I think that quickly on my feet? Or to actively “come up” with the crazy stuff he says? It takes dexterity to keep on top of the sheer volume of words that need to come out of Jack’s mouth.
MH: As for Ann, she is not your typical female ingénue. These characters are so incredibly intelligent. They are in a room with people who take pleasure in being that smart and challenging each other’s ideas. They each hold deep convictions in what they know to be right, while they have their guts all tangled up around what they want. That contrast between people’s desires and ambitions makes for a funny contradiction!
“Man and Superman” takes place at a point in history when such ambitions were causing waves of societal change. The older Victorian ideals were giving way to looser, modern Edwardian ones. The term for a man like Jack was literally a “New Man.” For example, despite rigid British social classes, one of his best friends is his driver, Henry Straker (Paul O’ Neill). How does having Henry as a friend help define Jack?
AB: It shows he is not just a member of the aristocracy. He has views outside of his own social sphere, and they are not the antiquated views of a past century. Jack can appreciate someone who is able to advance themselves. He can put his money where his mouth is, thinking of Henry as more an equal than a subordinate. My character even allows himself to be chastised by him when necessary.
Jack is also unusual in that he offers similar courtesy and acceptance to women, as we see with Violet (Jeana Magallon). Madison, Ann similarly qualifies in this era as one of the inheriting generation. She brazenly holds her own with the men. How do you feel portraying a New Woman?
MH: It’s empowering! And something that every woman is capable of. It’s exciting to involve myself in a world where that is becoming the norm. Ann even has the line, “The only simple thing is to go straight for what you want and grab it.” To see somebody unleash that philosophy is absolutely thrilling.
Another philosophy that factors into the show is an argument of Mr. Shaw’s. He introduces the term “Life Force.” My brain always turns to the original “Jurassic Park” where little spliced dinosaurs develop two genders so that life can find a way. Essentially, Shaw’s Life Force targets nature’s irrepressibility, as well as the choice to become the best possible version of yourself. Unlike Darwin's thoughts on hereditary growth, Shaw considered evolution a decision. What is it like to wrestle with the Life Force and nature’s palpable energy onstage?
AB: Jack encounters the Life Force coming directly at him. Nature needs to sustain itself and continue onward. There is a fundamental need to continue life. Rising tides will raise all boats, if you will.
The show takes place across multiple countries, so one of the key takeaway ideas is that there is absolutely nowhere for poor Jack to run and hide.
AB: Right. And no matter what he does, he is unable to escape himself or others!
Meanwhile, there's Ann. According to Shaw, women are the dominant gender when it comes to the Life Force. And sweet, lovely Ann is a master manipulator and wielder of it! Madison, how have you negotiated that power?
MH: She’s strategic! Ann carries so much Life Force inside of her that she is able to inflict great chaos with it. Our director (James Bohnen) pointed out that she will enter a room and wait to speak until she can map out where people are at, and then build her latest plan based on the data she receives.
What do you hope our audience takes home from seeing the play?
MH: You know what I love about “Man and Superman”? It’s this meeting ground and battlefield of love and power. There is a release and a surrender in really loving someone. There can be a losing of the self. This play challenges you to consider: Is love a loss of power? Does power negate love? Or is there a way that both of those things can coexist in each other?
AB: Or how do we continue to advance? We are still trying to find, no matter what time we are living in, something for ourselves. As individuals and collectively, we want to locate what can lead us to the next idea, and beyond. Shaw has a quote: “Theatre is at its finest when it is an elucidator of social consciousness, a recorder of the mores of its time, a historian of the future, an armory against despair and darkness, and a temple in the assent of man.”