There are certain plays by George Bernard Shaw that, when viewed from a modern perspective, can seem woefully anachronistic. And there are others that strike the viewer as so fresh in their conception and so urgent in their message that you can scarcely believe they were written a century ago.
"The Millionairess," Shaw's ever-salient 1936 critique of capitalism now playing on the Court House Theatre stage, is of the second type. Its language, which has some direct modern echoes in Matt Taibbi's writing on the corruption of the financial sector in Rolling Stone, will ring chillingly true for anyone who has paid attention to the global economy during the past four years.
This production, directed with an almost campy sensibility by Blair Williams, gets to the heart of a central contradiction that Shaw saw within early 20th century capitalism. His argument -- that neither the drive to make money nor the achievement of social good can be sustained without the other -- was as radical an idea in the midst of the Great Depression as it is in the wake of the Great Recession. In this play, Shaw is in essence arguing that capitalism and socialism actually need each other.
Shaw, ever the moralist, makes these two forces (unfettered greed and duty-bound social consciousness) easy for us to understand. The play's titular aristocrat, Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga (Nicole Underhay), is an unmitigated caricature of corporate personhood. When she storms onto the stage in a blood-red dress and begins blathering about committing suicide like a petulant teenager, it is clear Williams means her to represent everything ugly about the way the modern economy operates.
As the too-big-to-fail Epifania inches toward her eventual epiphany, she threatens to destroy everything in her path, including her current husband, Alastair (Martin Happer), and his mistress, Patricia (Robin Evan Willis), along with her "Sunday husband" Adrian Blenderbland (Steven Sutcliffe) and various other poor, penniless saps she runs across. That is, until she meets a virtuous doctor as unshakable in his views toward the social good as she is in hers toward the preservation of her fortune.
The heavy-handed tone of Shaw's message is met by Williams' consciously exaggerated production and Underhay's almost cartoonish portrayal of Epifania, which she does not embrace quite enough. Even so, she delivers some of Shaw's best speeches (notably her screed that ends in the declaration: "Hands off my money!") with verve. And "The Millionairess," at the ripe old age of 76, rings truer than ever.
'His Girl Friday'
Plays and television shows about journalism inevitably make the profession seem more devious -- and sometimes even more noble -- than it actually is. (See: HBO's "The Newsroom.") "His Girl Friday," a recent stage adaptation by John Guare that marries Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 play "The Front Page" with the screenplay of the 1940 film "His Girl Friday," does a bit of both.
The play, on stage in the Festival Theatre within a gloriously gritty set by designer Peter Hartwell, shows us one hectic day in the lives of a feral pack of Chicago crime reporters.
You can read it as a critique of journalism, as a critique of politics, as a critique of xenophobia in America, or as a critique of human nature. I prefer to read it as a straight-up comedy, an approach that Jim Mezon's smart direction and the talents of his crackerjack cast constantly reward.
The story, somewhat gracelessly rewritten by Guare to shift the original play's concern with latent racism to a commentary on anti-Semitism, revolves around the upcoming hanging of a Czech immigrant who shot a crooked cop in self-defense. It is set entirely in the dilapidated press room of the Chicago criminal court, where competing reporters from various papers hoot, holler, play poker and occasionally file sensational tidbits to their editors over the phone.
Into this unscrupulous boys club wanders former star reporter Hildy Johnson (the lovely Nicole Underhay), just back from Reno for a short visit -- or so she thinks. Johnson is lured back into action by her ex-husband, the editor Walter Burns (Benedict Campbell, charming as ever) who conspires to win back not only her talents but her heart.
The play, which contains any number of great physical gags along with its all-you-can-eat buffet of searing commentaries, is a riot from start to finish.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Oct. 6
WHERE: Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
TICKETS: $24 to $73
INFO: 800-511-7429 www.shawfest.com
"His Girl Friday"
WHEN: Through Oct. 5
WHERE: Festival Theatre, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
TICKETS: $24 to $110
INFO: 800-511-7429 www.shawfest.com