POWERFUL STUFF

It's all about power. The combination of skill, intelligence and soul-numbing, single-minded will that it takes to get rich in a capitalist society might propel one into the politburo in a communist society. So George Bernard Shaw speculated in his extravagant comedy of ideas The Millionairess, now in a hilarious run at Germinal Stage Denver.

Shaw had many opinions about the way life works. He thought women are driven by a "life force" to select an appropriate mate, pursue him and secure him in marriage. In Shaw's scheme of things, men are often attracted to women who exude this life force, but his male heroes are rarely sexually aggressive. Instead, many of his most interesting men are brainy guys who make lots of money or track the life of the mind.

Shaw's view of women and the life force might seem condescending today, and perhaps it is. But his work is also full of forceful and clever women who have their own goals in business and in life.

In The Millionairess, Shaw twines two of his most important themes together. When a wealthy, gifted Spanish heiress named Epifania Ognisanti de Parerga is challenged to live on her own wits for six months, she cannot help but make it big in business. But she's also a sexual predator, and naturally, her prey is the least likely man she can find--an East Indian Muslim doctor who cares for nothing except medical science. She becomes as interesting to him as he is to her by the sheer force of her determination. Smart, brave, indifferent to fame and fortune, radically cerebral and absorbed only by philanthropic healing, the doctor is no match for her female will. In Epifania, nature and culture, knowledge and that old life force combine to make one formidable woman.

Formidable but flawed, that is. Neurotically obsessed with her father and insensitive to the feelings of others, Epifania has made a mess of her first marriage. As the play opens, she walks into a lawyer's office and says she wants a new will drawn up leaving everything to her unfaithful husband, Cecil. She plans to kill herself as soon as she's signed it, convinced that a great deal of money will go to her spouse and destroy him. The lawyer coolly calls her bluff, giving her a recipe for cyanide and telling her how to use it.

Just as Epifania realizes she has no interest in dying, enter the husband and his mistress, Patricia, a sweet twit of a woman whose common sense and good nature, along with her absurd voice and piercing wit, obviously make her a better mate for the dim, normal Cecil. Epifania's own (platonic) partner, Adrian Blenderbland, arrives next, and the two set off for a day in the country.

But unlike Epifania, Adrian does care for money and luxury. He also obsesses on her obsession with her father, so she throws him down the stairs, breaking a variety of bones. She meets the doctor and instantly seizes on him as her choice of a husband. Then the two challenge each other: She is to have only a few shillings and learn to live in poverty; he must parlay 150 pounds into 50,000 in the space of six months.

One of the funniest scenes in the play is Epifania's takeover of a small sweat shop where she has gone to seek a job. The poor old man and woman who run the shop are completely bowled over by her business acumen and charisma. Needless to say, she turns the nasty little business into a going concern--and then uses the newfound capital to take over another business. She just can't help herself.

Eventually Epifania realizes that making money isn't very difficult for a woman of her talents, and decides communist Russia could provide more interesting challenges. She's certain she will make it to the politburo inside a few weeks. She will, too.

Director Ed Baierlein gives the play a driving, inexorable rhythm and is likewise in top form as poor Adrian--practically every line out of his mouth is amusing, and his performance marks the tone of the whole play.

Shaw does belabor the morals of his stories, though, and Suzanna Wellens has her hands full with a complicated accent and Epifania's often uproarious rants. Most of the time Wellens succeeds admirably, keeping the character intense and the accent intact. But some of the speeches are too repetitious for even her to make interesting.

Michael Shalhoub as the doctor gives a dry, witty performance that serves as ballast to Wellens's flights, and Stephen R. Kramer's fussy Cecil is an amusing straight man to Cheryl McFarren's profoundly imperturbable Patricia. Fred Lewis's lawyer punctures holes in all the other characters' pretensions like a happy schoolboy.

And in the end, though we may take issue with some of his assertions about male-female relations, many of Shaw's insights still hold up. Without a little human balance, skill, intelligence and a fierce will can be dangerous things to us all.

 
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