Monday, September 10, 2012

Overplaying Shaw: The Millionairess at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Steven Sutcliffe and Nicole Underhay in The Millionairess (Photo by David Cooper)

The two productions of Shaw plays at the Shaw Festival this summer are both wearying. Eda Holmes, who directed Misalliance, and Blair Williams, who staged The Millionairess, seem to be laboring under the misperception that if you make these plays more frantic and emphatic, then somehow their ideas will be clearer and the texts will seem funnier, when in fact there’s no special trick to penetrating their ideas, and all the overstatement numbs out the comedy. And the concepts are puzzling. Holmes has set Misalliance in 1962, for unconvincing reasons that she lays out in a director’s note; the characters don’t sound remotely as if they belonged in the sixties (the play was written a few years before the First World War), so Judith Bowden’s sets – which don’t really seem to belong to any historical era – and costumes just make you scratch your head. The Millionairess is performed without English accents, so when one of the characters refers to an American with whom he got involved in a business deal, you just wonder what he’s supposed to be. Canadian?

Shaw bills The Millionairess as a “Jonsonian comedy,” which would explain the outrageous character names, but the cast performs it as if it were Kaufman and Hart, and it’s such a silly play that I don’t imagine it matters. I’ve seen it three times over the years at roughly twenty-year intervals and each time even the plot fails to stick in my brain. The main character, an imperious and impossible heiress named Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, marries two men, one before the play begins and one just after the final curtain, both of whom manage to pass her late father’s test and make money out of the small pile she deeds to them. In between she throws another suitor down the stairs for making an unkind comment about her papa and takes over two businesses and turns them into triumphs. The narrative doesn’t cohere very well (probably that’s why I can never recall how it goes) but it makes a number of typically Shavian observations about economics. The best thing in it is the third act, wherein Epifania offers herself for a job at a sweatshop and starts to make improvements in it before she’s even begun work. It’s not in the same style as the rest of the play, and in the production at the Shaw it’s the only scene that’s largely performed (at least, by Michael Ball and Wendy Thatcher, as the sweatshop owner and his wife) with some restraint.

Wendy Thatcher and Michael Ball (Photo by David Cooper)
The rest of the evening badly needs to be toned it down a few notches. The problem is that Nicole Underhay pitches Epifania’s scenes so high that the rest of the ensemble is in the uncomfortable position of having to match her. Some of Underhay’s physical choices are fun – the way she leans, for instance, with her hip thrown out – but she puts quotation marks around all of her lines, and in the final scene she yells and screams and makes so many faces that she begins to look like Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Underhay has a following at the Shaw: at the performance I caught, a few members of the audience cheered when she came on and gave her a standing ovation at the end. But her overstrenuousness strikes me as exactly the wrong approach to the role; she’s like Rosalind Russell playing Auntie Mame. By contrast Maggie Smith’s highly stylized performance in a BBC Play of the Week in 1972 (which is available on DVD), which is almost an embodiment of art deco, is wry and amusing; she doesn’t push for her effects. Watching Underhay made me jumpy.

Some of the other actors fare better. Robin Evan Willis is quite good as Polly, whom Epifania’s first hubby, Alastair Fitzfassenden, runs to when Epifania’s demands exhaust him, and Martin Happer is hilariously granite-jawed as Alastair, like Steve Canyon in the old comic strip. As Adrian Blenderbland, the unlucky fellow Epifania hurls down the stairs, then claims that he injured her, Steven Sutcliffe has a wonderful braying laugh and the look of a dandy (he might have stepped out of The Importance of Being Earnest); when he reappears in the last act with a head bandage, sliding around on crutches, his physical work is the best gag in the show. The man Epifania sets her sights on the second time around is an Indian doctor. In the movie version, which I’ve never seen, the role is played by Peter Sellers (opposite Sophia Loren as Epifania), so presumably the role was been built up, but he doesn’t have much to do in the play, and Kevin Hanchard seems miscast. He’s earnest and rather dull; you need someone with the ironic-Sphinx presence of a young Ben Kingsley to carry it off. The most enjoyable element in this production is the set and costume designs by Cameron Porteous. The palette changes from one scene to the next: it’s crimson and black in act one, blue and gray in act two, green and dusty gray in act three, and gold and white in act four, when the restaurant we encountered in the second act has been refurbished thanks to Epifania’s innovations and financial acumen. (It doesn’t make any sense that Polly should be sitting at a restaurant table knitting during this scene, but the gold material under her needles picks up the color motif.) The scene shifts are wittily staged, but scene shifts probably shouldn’t be the high point of any production.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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