The Man of Destiny
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 6, 2010
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is giving audiences a rare look at one of George Bernard Shaw's plays that doesn't often get done: The Man of Destiny. The title character is Napoleon Bonaparte, whom we meet at the beginning of his career, at the age of 27. Napoleon's conquests and ambitions are only peripheral to the story, however; this play, which Shaw published in the volume Plays Pleasant, is mostly a battle-of-the-sexes/battle-of-wits comedy that pits the young general against a gutsy and rather brilliant lady spy. Who ultimately wins is decidedly a matter of opinion for each audience member.
The production, directed by Amy Wagner, is handsome and offers fine opportunities to its four actors. Maruti Evans's set is dominated by a huge reproduction of the famous David painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps which hangs over the stage, out of sight of the characters but always before the spectators. The stage itself depicts a little Italian inn where Napoleon is stopping following the battle in Lodi. Here, while the garrulous innkeeper tries to engage him, Napoleon waits impatiently for a lieutenant who is to deliver dispatches from Paris. But when the lieutenant finally arrives, he is empty-handed; he explains, to his general's consternation, that a young man tricked him out of the dispatches. And then the young woman who is the only other occupant of the inn arrives. The lieutenant never grasps what Napoleon does instantly—namely that this seemingly demure lady is also the youth who stole the lieutenant's parcel. Napoleon dismisses his bumbling underling and the nosy innkeeper, and the game, as they say, is afoot.
This being a play by Shaw, the game is a verbal battle, as Napoleon and the lady spy try to outwit one another, not so much for control of the dispatches but rather for control of the argument itself. Romance never enters into the tale, although it is clear that they are evenly matched and, perhaps in another place and time, they might have ended up as allies rather than adversaries.
Josh Tyson is convincingly young and vigorous as Napoleon, and exudes the charisma that one imagines the original must indeed have done. He gets the choicest speech, near the end of the play, in which he exposes what we'd call a capitalist/imperialist mentality for what it is.
Brian Costello is suitably foolish as the lieutenant, while Amy Fitts acquits herself nicely as the spy. Craig Smith, one of the co-artistic directors/founders of the Phoenix, is delightful fun as the innkeeper, inhabiting this Doolittle-esque character with brio and complexity. It's always a treat to see this fine actor on stage.
As indeed it is a pleasure to experience this seldom-produced work by Shaw. It's no surprise that The Man of Destiny is packed with intellectually stimulating discourse and plenty of wit. Kudos to Phoenix Theatre for mounting it so faithfully.