ShawChicago Theater Company has an unexpected and unlikely hit with their concert-reading staging of “The Cassilis Engagement.” Unexpected because “Cassilis” is not an obscure Shavian piece but instead a piece by an obscure Shavian contemporary, St. John Hankin. Who? St. John Hankin was an early-nineteenth-century playwright, one of Shaw’s contemporaries, and a man who committed suicide at the age of 39 by tying weights around his neck and throwing himself into a river. It would be wonderful to report that a theatrical genius had been lost in those waters, but the fact of the matter is that at best Hankin was a passable playwright, who owed as much to Shaw—whom he admired—as to Wilde—whom he imitated. Part satire and part comedy of manners, “The Cassilis Engagement,” which could be subtitled “scenes from the English countryside class struggle,” concerns the scandalous engagement between a society gentleman and a cockney bumpkin, as well the group of well-bred buffoons that conspire against their union. The female characters have titles like Ladies and Countesses, the gentlemen are Majors and Reverends, and the linear action is spread out over four acts within locales such as The Drawing Room and The Smoking Room. It’s a credit to Hankin that just when you think you know how the story is going to end—which does not involve the butler with the candlestick in the library—he surprises you with a finale that feels less the product of a writer who admired “The Importance of Being Earnest” and more the product of the playwright who killed himself. More surprising is how contemporary some of Hankin’s themes—verboten mixed-class unions, cynical attitudes towards love and marriage—resonate for us today a whole century later. Under the taut direction of ShawChicago Artistic Director Robert Scogin, the ensemble is flawless, the rhythm pitch perfect and the antiquated dialogue and time-worn jokes fresh-sounding. I think the best compliment I can pay is that I’ve seen staged productions with far superior material that have failed to engage me with as much charm and craft as has ShawChicago and their concert reading of “The Cassilis Engagement.” (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, (773)477-8088. This production is now closed.