Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ian Belknap
Where: Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Sunday, January 25, 2pm
Photos and images from the REP
So far, the 2014-15 season of the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players has been a bit of a disappointing one, but the company typically excels at comedy and while their production of George Bernard Shaw's 1936 piece The Millionairess isn't presenting a mind-blowingly hilarious romp, the play manages enough laughs (or at least respectful smiles) to create a pleasant afternoon at the theater.
Set in 1930s England, The Millionairess of the title is Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga (played by REP member Elizabeth Heflin), a rich woman married to Alastair Fitzfassenden (REP's Mic Matarrese), a man whom she feels is beneath her status and quality of life. While Alastair isn't exactly faithful to Epifania -- he has a sweetie on the side named Patricia (the always reliable Kathleen Pirkl Tague) -- the millionairess herself isn't exactly tied down to one man either, finding herself prancing about town with Adrian Blenderbland (guest actor John Rensenhouse). When all four of these characters meet in the law office of barrister Julius Sagamore (REP's Michael Gotch), schemes are hatched by Epifania from divorce proceedings to suicide attempts in order to figure out a way out of her marriage while still maintaining her dignified social status. Oddly enough, although that seems like a rather elaborate summary, Shaw's play introduces yet another man to vie for Epifania's affections known only as "The Doctor" (REP member Lee Ernst) and it's this relationship between our title character and this mysterious Arabian medicine man that pushes along the remainder of the play.
Where The Millionairess falters is in Shaw's words. While he certainly is the wordsmith and his humor was likely fitting for the era the work premiered, it feels a little loquacious today. That isn't to say that as the second act enfolds that this excellent ensemble can't pick up steam from where a somewhat lackluster first act leaves off. The cast certainly cranks things up a few notches and The Millionairess certainly ends on a high note. It's not that the first act fails, it's just that the opening scene in particular seems to meander a bit with Shaw too fond of his pen and paper to allow the set-up of the play to be cut a tad bit shorter. Credit to director Ian Belknap for milking the comedy (both physical and verbal) from Shaw's work. In the hands of a lesser director, I could see most of humor falling flat for today's audiences and while I don't think everything clicked, considering the fact that the play is nearly a century old Belknap does a nice job.
As is nearly always the case with the REP, we are treated to some fantastic costumes and sets -- this time by Matthew J. LeFebvre. The last time we saw Mr. LeFebvre's work, it was for the stunning stark scenic design of The Threepenny Opera. Here, a completely rotating turntable set (a first, I believe for the REP) stunningly gives us three distinct scenes, all of which are beautiful to look at and, in the second act, get a chance to really shine in a funny, clever scene change which actually had the audience applauding. The costumes are also gorgeous representations of a bygone era.
The acting ensemble does a nice job here as well with Elizabeth Heflin and Lee Ernst in particular stepping up their respective games and playing very nicely off one another. (Heflin and Ernst also took lead roles in the REP's last production of Macbeth and I enjoyed their repartee here much more than in the disappointing Shakespearean drama.) Heflin, in particular, is quite good at being obnoxiously self-centered as her Epifania is surprisingly engaging despite Shaw creating what could've been a basic stereotypical haughty caricature. Guest artist John Rensenhouse also provides a nice counterpoint to Epifania as the uppity Blenderbland.
The Millionairess marks a significant improvement from the REP's earlier productions this season and although it doesn't match some of the hilarious works we've seen from them in the past, it's a solid presentation of the work of a well-known playwright.
Side Note: It's such a shame that the REP, which started as a training program for UD's Professional Theater Training Program, is unable to continue that important task as of late. While I truly enjoy the great ensemble of actors, the REP needs an infusion of youthful blood into it like it did in its initial seasons. The ability to teach should be a university's goal and while I certainly appreciate the fact that the University of Delaware contributes to the wonderful organization that is the REP, I wish they would bring back the PTTP and allow these talented artists to aid up-and-coming onstage and offstage theatrical talent.