Looking at WNY’s visual art, theater, music, and dance scenes.
Aug 22, 2012
09:35 AMTalk about Arts
Spree Theater with Jana Eisenberg: Shaw's "Millionairess"
Playwright, economist, socialist, and critic Bernard Shaw never tired of teaching us lessons. In his over 60 plays, which feature lots of expositional dialogue, he sought to dispense with the going schools of thought and proffer alternative ideas—often with more than a tinge of satire or unsubtle drawing room comedy. In his plays, which were written between 1892 and 1949, he addressed subjects including education, business, marriage, religion, government, health care, and class privilege.
“The Millionairess,” now in rotation at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is no exception. Between the laughs and amusement, get ready for a lecture. The play is subtitled “A Jonsonian Comedy,” in reference to Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson for his controversial and satirical writing, also meant to instruct.
This streamlined production is notable for its single-color-themed set pieces (it was designed by Cameron Porteous). Festival favorite, leading actress Nicole Underhay is at it again—lucky woman is she to be repeatedly handed juicy roles, and the opportunity to bite into them and chomp to her heart’s content!
Underhay plays Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, “the richest woman in England.” She’s not very nice, and to say that she is imperious and stingy is putting it lightly. Every action that she takes, every thought that occurs to her, is deeply grounded in her conviction to never let go of one single cent of the beaucoup bucks her father left her.
Shaw wrote this play in 1934. According to the director’s notes, and history, in 1934, the world was “still reeling from a stock market crash in which wealth did not disappear, but was in fact consolidated for the very wealthiest.” (Sound familiar?)
The plot is a bit of a muddle: the main character is about to end a bad early marriage—her soon-to-be-ex appears with his new love, and they all meet with their shared lawyer. She is being wooed by another man, Adrian Blenderbland (Steven Sutcliffe, another festival favorite), who is made into a total buffoon when he suffers a beating at the hands of Epifania.
Director Blair Williams allows the volume to ramp up with the hijinx that ensue when they meet again—Blenderbland on crutches and with his head in a classic theatrical “head bandage,” shrieking in hilarious indignation.
One of the main plot devices, of which much is made, is a conundrum: Epi promised her father that she would only marry men who could turn 150 pounds into 50,000 in six months. (Her first husband did it by check kiting.) She seems to need to be married, and the man she sets her sites on is an Egyptian doctor. But wait! He, from a poor family, promised to his mother to only marry a woman who, beginning with 35 pence, can support herself for six months.
So you see the problem. You’ll have to see the play for the solution—it is a comedy after all, and those usually have happy endings.
“The Millionairess,” by Bernard Shaw, directed By Blair Williams; running through October 6 in the Court House Theatre, 28 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.