The Senga Classic Stage Company has brought George Bernard Shaw’s rarely performed comedy Great Catherine back to the boards. Catherine II was the charismatic German empress of 18th-century Russia, but don’t expect a historical play. Artistic director Francisca Beach isn’t aiming to give summer audiences a lesson in Russian history, but rather a “fun and frothy” escape to the caricatured world of this ridiculous farce.
The play is set in the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg—a colder, dirtier version of the Palace of Versailles. This exotic setting was perfect for the first audiences of Victorian Londoners who delighted in elaborate, expensive sets and larger-than-life characters. Unfortunately, with times as they are now, budgets don’t allow for such re-creations, and the play’s essential extravagance could not be realized even through this production’s creative attempts at DIY opulence via life-size cutouts of soldiers and painted gold set pieces.
Thankfully, the picture is not all: Shaw’s language is packed full of the ostentatious self-display that quickly erodes into clownish stereotypes. Robert Sabotka is delightfully grotesque in the role of Prince Patiomkin—the one-eyed Russian who belches, slurs, and stumbles his way into everyone’s heart. He is full to the brim of vodka, pet names, and impromptu epigrams like “Darling, it is not better to be drunk than sober; but it is … happier.”
This boisterous Russian “barbarian” is offset by the uptight English Captain Edstaston (John Eslick) who arrives requesting to see the empress and somehow ends up tied and tortured by tickles from the empress’s toe. He is saved by his impetuous fiancée, Claire, played charmingly by Vivien Latham with a lisp and a keen sense of façade.
The empress of the play’s title does not appear onstage until the second act, giving the other performers time to establish the atmosphere of fear, reverence, and fascination surrounding this queen, who wasn’t called Great for nothing. Santa Barbara’s Jenna Scanlon might have taken character cues from the gorgeous Cavalier King Charles spaniel that accompanies her onstage. Both are intelligent, luxurious, pampered, and poised but also surely possessed of a loud bark and powerful bite.
Unlike the Russian palace, this production can’t cover its faults with displays of wealth, but the people who populate it are still as exotic and exaggerated as Shaw and the rest of Europe once imagined them. This boisterous farce is sure to draw some laughs, either by tickling or torture.