Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Shaw Festival's Millionairess is money in the bank!

Martin Happer - Alastair Fitzfassenden, Nicole Underhay - Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga. Photo - Emily Cooper

Shaw's comedy, The Millionairess, opened to well-earned applause at the tiny Court House Theatre in Niagara on the Lake, featuring Nicole Underhay, an iron lady with a velvet glove who earned a standing ovation for a tour de force as Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, "the most interesting woman in England" she herself states. From a bombshell entrance to the last line, she totally dominates the stage in much the same fashion as Lorne Kennedy ruled in last year and 2008's The President.

And it's not fluff as with this year's companion pieces, Present Laughter and French Without Tears as Director Blair Williams utilizes a modern approach to focus on weighty economic themes. As The Millionairess unwinds, we think of the likes of Bernie Madoff and Conrad Black as well as Lehman Brothers et al.

Underhay ritually blasphemes and denigrates anyone who gets in the way under a cloak of romance and comedy. We watch Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga attempt to find an equal in her search for love. Immeasurably wealthy, spoiled and miserable, she obtains whatever she desires, but can make the wrong choice.

The action begins in a lawyer's office, (Kevin Bundy as Julius Sagamore) and Bundy is both amused and adept in assisting Underhay in her passionate desire to commit suicide because of a disastrous marital union with a boxing, tennis-playing jock endowed with a fine body, but not much else. (Alastair Fitzfassenden, a stereotype played well by Martin Happer). She quickly opts out of this gambit, and most of the other characters soon arrive to create complications.

Happer has taken up with poor yet sympathetic Robin Evan Willis as Patricia Smith (Polly), who abandons her femme fatale role in French Without Tears to simply sit and knit and assume a domestic harmony foil to Underhay.

Steven Sutcliffe is Adrian Benderbland, a snobbish ne'er-do-well and Underhay's latest male gopher and amusement. He utilizes his annoyingly whiny voice (which didn't work in Present Laughter, but is terrific here) to great effect, particularly in the later scenes after Underhay has pummeled and thrown him all over the stage with an impressive display of jujitsu, finally heaving him down a staircase, breaking bones and spirit and forcing him to limp about with double crutches and head wrapped in bandages.

  Underhay decides to marry the suave Ahmed el Kabir (Kevin Hanchard of Top Dog/Under Dog fame), an Egyptian doctor, unimpressed by her affluence or overwhelmed by her commanding personality. Nevertheless, he succumbs because he "falls in love with her pulse," the moment he touches her arm.

As with many wealthy, dominant parents, Eppy's father actually controls the action from the grave, his fabulous wealth and power transformed to his daughter along with his bulky ego. He forbids her to marry unless a man can perform an incredible monetary task, take £150 and transform it into £50,000 in six month's time. Happer is paradoxically up to the task, (sheer luck) hence the marriage, but manages it in illegal manner.

With a potential happy ending on the horizon, complications arise in the form of two parental tests - Hanchard must also turn £150 into £50,000 within six months; Underhay must start with 35 pence, turn it into a healthy sum and support herself for six months. Eppy sets out to live her life as a pauper and experiences an epiphany about true happiness along the way. She encounters the shabby world of Joe (Michael Ball) and Joe's Wife (Wendy Thatcher), two impoverished types who slave away in an illegal sweat shop and haven't enjoyed a holiday in 17 years.

Of course, with Underhay's super-normal drive, ambition and leadership, every marginal business she touches is transformed into an immediate money-maker with her Midas touch. Ball and Thatcher witness economic magic with disbelief, condemned to a marginal existence that doesn't allow for creativity or change. Eppy creates jobs, wrecks a few lives along the way, and shrugs that that's simply the way things go in trickle-down capitalism as with the ultimate American capitalist, George W. Bush - "I've always believed in a flat organizational chart. I think the worst thing that can happen for decision-makers is to get a filtered point of view. You're either with me or against me."

Kevin Hanchard - The Doctor, Nicole Underhay - Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga. Photo - Emily Cooper

Cameron Porteous displays a neat touch, focusing the set with one dominant colour per scene starting off with a bold red in the lawyer's office and appropriately ending with joyful gold, each colour identical to Underhay's wardrobe. Louise Guinand handles the lighting design and Dmitri Marine, sound design, each difficult within the Court House's cramped space.

Shaw asks a troubling question: what's to be done about the natural boss, those often dangerous types who possess the ability to lead and who we naturally want to follow? "They are irresistible unless they are restrained by law; for ordinary individuals are helpless in their hands. Are they to be the masters of society?"

We have observed the Napoleons of the world: household tyrants, school dictators, office megalomaniacs, ruthless bosses who rises to the top "by a gravitation that ordinary people cannot resist." However, in this play, we actually come to admire Underhay as Eppy, not in fact a monster, but a true force of nature like lightning, thunder and volcanic eruptions. "Can one live with a tornado?" shouts Alastair, the champion boxer, bested at every turn by his ultra-rich wife.

Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga describes herself as "a woman who must always want something and always get it," but the man she married mostly because she was attracted to his physical power deserts her for another woman, and while she dabbles with others, she cannot find her equal. Only when she meets her antithesis, Ahmed el Kabir, do kindred sparks fly.

Shaw's play was written in 1935 with fascism and unbridled capitalism on the rise. His play previews our modern massive bank bailouts and today's exorbitant CEO salaries. In the program's Director's Notes, Blair Williams quotes Shaw: "What is to be done with that section of the possessors of specific talents whose talent is for money making? History and daily experience teach us that if the world does not devise some plan of ruling them, they will rule the world. Now it is not desirable that they should rule the world; for ... the supremacy of the money-maker is the destruction of the State. A society which depends on the incentive of private profit is doomed."

Williams suggests that "Private central banks, fractional reserve banking and the relentless mathematics of compound interest have a lot to answer for, for they provide the tools that make the money-maker master." Shaw penned this play with the world still reeling from a stock market crash in which wealth did not disappear, but was in fact consolidated for the very wealthiest. He created the character of the Millionairess to personify capitalist individualism, political dictatorship and, one could now argue, corporatism: she is a person who is wilfully ignorant of the fact that life has any other purpose than the fulfilment of her personal, self-serving will.

"Today, we see government policy not only in Canada but around the world bowing to the imperative of profit, as governments tell the State they cannot afford to house, heal or educate the next generation. There is no question that the money-makers are calling the shots, the State is being dismantled, and the just and great society (shades of Trudeau) of which Shaw dreamed is in very grave danger indeed. It seems we have reached a point where our survival may depend on our redefining profit and cost.

"Epifania, like the capitalist system she personifies, values money over all other cultural values. And yet, she has an epiphany: she realizes that she is happiest when her will is harnessed to a higher imperative than her own: when she is in fact, of service. Might we hope modern corporatism comes to the same conclusion? Well, we can laugh."

The Millionairess runs until Saturday, October 6.

Kevin Bundy   Kevin Bundy as Julius Sagamore, Nicole Underhay as Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, Robin Evan Willis as Patricia Smith. Photo David Cooper   Kevin Bundy as Julius Sagamore, Steven Sutcliffe as Adrian Blenderbland, Martin Happer as Alastair Fitzfassenden, Robin Evan Willis as Patricia Smith. Photo Emily Cooper   Kevin Hanchard

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