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  • Title: Too True to Be Good
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Sanjay Talwar
  • Actors: Graeme Somerville, Marla McLean, Donna Soares
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 8
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks required (except when eating or drinking) until June 10

Too True to Be Good may not be a particularly good comedy – a Guardian review of a recent revival pegged it as “justifiably neglected” – or it may be one of Bernard Shaw’s greatest works of art. I went on a journey from one point of view to the other over the course of the three-act oddity.

The 1932 play begins with a talking microbe and ends with a preacher drowning in his own speech. It’s a fever-dream window into a world that’s grown tired and cynical following years of sickness and war – and, seemingly fed up with the impossibility of progress under stagnant leadership, starts to tilt toward totalitarianism.

That’s the dangerous ledge Shaw talked himself onto in the 1930s – but, while the Irish playwright’s views became odious, he channelled them here into a theatrical work in which he argues with his own worst impulses and tries to stave off despair. What he wrote is strange and not always satisfying but nevertheless feels key to understanding his time – and ours, too, to which it has so many frightening parallels.

Too True to Be Good begins in a sickroom that is meant to be allegorical. Miss Mopply (a feisty Donna Soares) is bedridden with the measles in “one of the best bedrooms in one of the best suburban villas in one of the richest cities in England.” Her frantic mother, Mrs. Mopply (Jenny L. Wright), is dropping loads of cash on a doctor, coercing him into providing pointless prescriptions and inoculation for a disease that will cure or kill on its own.

There’s also, on the scene, the aforementioned sentient microbe who, in Joyce Padua’s whimsical costume design and Travis Seetoo’s impish performance, seems like a cross between a coronavirus and a court jester.

Into this stifling scene come two burglars – one in disguise as a nurse, the other through the window, literally letting some air into the unventilated room.

These criminals are named Sweetie (Marla McLean) and Popsy (Graeme Somerville) and their initial plan is to steal Miss Mopply’s pearls – but, after being impressed by her fight to keep them, they decide to persuade her to join them. Why not sell her jewellery and escape to truly live life instead of staying at home, rich and sick?

Shaw’s smug assumptions about health that underlie this opening scene – he believed in a version of the “natural immunity” humbug currently spread online – make it a tough sell as rollicking comedy now. But look beyond the misinformation to the compelling stage metaphor: An ill elite who need to cure themselves of their capital.

Too True to Be Good’s second and third acts – the audience is on a three-hour journey – move to a far-off British colonial outpost governed by the ineffectual Colonel Tallboys (a sharp Neil Barclay) but really run by a whip-smart private named Meek (the amusing Jonathan Tan).

The three protagonists are now living the high life, but, in disguise, have become deeply unhappy and bored: Sweetie is now a countess, Miss Mopply is her servant, and Popsy, drinking heavily, has revealed himself to be a former clergyman and has taken on that role.

There are new eccentrics to meet, from a fanatical atheist (Patrick Galligan) to a religious sergeant (Martin Happer), but it’s really Popsy who takes the pulpit.

Somerville, likewise, assumes full command of the show now, speechifying hypnotically. Director Sanjay Talwar asserts himself more and more as well, cultivating a disorienting and unsettling atmosphere.

In his more narratively coherent plays, Shaw’s great mansplainers can be annoying – but there’s a self-awareness to the writing of Popsy, a veteran of the Great War who cannot move on from the killing he was involved in, that makes him more palatable. (“You cannot divide my conscience into a war department and a peace department,” he says.) It also helps that Mrs. Mopply is on hand, poking holes in his more portentous blathering. (“Men are not real: they’re all talk, talk, talk,” she complains.)

Shaw’s play is on a strange path here from cynicism to dehumanization (humans are described as “inefficient fertilizers” who “do nothing but convert good food into bad manure”) to a happy ending that is immediately undercut by Popsy’s assertion that everyone is “falling, falling, falling endlessly and hopelessly through a void in which they can find no footing.”

Who is this Shavian superman who “must preach and preach and preach no matter how late the hour and how short the day, no matter whether I have nothing to say” – a premonition of Samuel Beckett, or of Tucker Carlson?

Back at the end of Too True to Be Good’s first act, the microbe is still around – and offers us the option of leaving: “The exit doors are all in order.” Don’t listen to the virus: Too True to Be Good’s power, like so much of Shaw’s work, is cumulative and what seems a squib after an hour is dangerously enrapturing after three.

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