Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Theater review: Present Laughter at Theatre Three in Dallas
All the actors seemed comfortable with farce, and each found levels of complication to make performances interesting.
Theatre Three’s “Present Laughter” by Noel Coward
DALLAS Garry Essendine is having a bad week. He's about to go on tour to Africa, and no one is making it easy. He's approaching a mid-life crisis and seems sensitive about everything. Moreover, he's not happy about the lack of appreciation for his hard work. For a diva in 1938, this is not a pretty sight. But it is funny, and so is Present Laughter, now playing at Theatre Three in the Quadrangle through September 1.
Present Laughter, by Noel Coward, is a mainstay of farce in theater. A farce is a comic dramatic piece with improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and over-the-top physical action. Noel Coward was a master at farce known also for Blythe Spirit, Hay Fever, and Private Lives. The role of Garry was created by Coward about his own life, himself a diva for 50 years as an actor, singer, director, composer, and playwright who often played himself in his own plays. Coward wrote Present Laughter in 1939, and Theatre Three's production was set in London in 1938.
Director Bruce R. Coleman's production team created an interpretation of high-class life in London. Coleman costumed his actors in lavish garb, silk gowns, tuxedoes, pinstripes, and expensive accessories, all accoutrements of the rich and famous. The colors were bright and varied for the different actors, complimenting the lavish apartment suite created by David Walsh. No detail was lost in this set. Beautiful in its simplicity, yet very rich, every piece oozed a lavish lifestyle. The couches were white, chandeliers hung overhead, and the essential grand piano hid behind a staircase leading to Essendine's bedroom suite. All of this was lit by Carl Munoz, generally brightly but with key accents and special lighting for dark scenes. And Rich Frohlich filled the air with authentic '30s music. This setting created an atmosphere of lush wealth and provided a playing space where actors moved up and down many levels, occupied hidden backstage rooms and crossed through numerous doorways. The set seemed larger than Theatre Three could hold.
Coleman cast professionals who kept the dialog fast, one-liners sizzling, and a balance between outlandish antics and believable emotional outbursts. The story in Present Laughter was silly but entirely believable, given what we know about the rich and famous, then and now.
Gregory Lush played Garry with a Noel Coward flair for the dramatic. His physical demeanor screamed "fame." Garry knew he was adored by the public, recognized why and agreed with them. But Lush also found a depth of self-doubt for Garry that bordered on an innocent vulnerability.
Garry was lusciously countered by Joanna Lyppiatt, played by Lisa-Gabrielle Greene. The wife of his producer, she used her sultry sexiness as a predator, putting moves on everyone she wanted, including Essendine who loathed her. Greene imbued Joanna with black widow sexuality that scared you and sucked you in until it was too late. She wasn't alone in the chase, though. A young, innocent Daphne Stillington, played by Jad Saxton, was naïve under Garry's influence and that undid her when he put her out the next day. However, Saxton showed Daphne's cunning and lethal side when she returned to have another go at him.
Garry was also accosted by a young male playwright who decided the great diva would be a perfect mentor and patron, but who needed his special guidance to choose a more pure artistic vision. Sam Swanson's Roland Maule caused chaos as he stalked Essendine through three acts, escalating his desperation and demands each time he appeared.
The diva was encircled by his production and house staffs that sheltered him from his public. His former wife, Liz, played by Lydia Mackay, pushed him to grow up and leave his wild ways, while his secretary, Monica Reed, played by Arianna Movassagh, kept track of his many love letters while frequently reminding him he wasn't as precious as he thought he was. His producer, Hugo Lyppiatt, the husband of Joanna, was played by Linus Craig with a desperate fear of losing her, until his own demons appeared. And his young associate, Morris Dixon, was played by Ian Ferguson with an innocence of someone over his head in love. Together they tried to push him toward more professional artistic choices, though both were beset by their own indiscretions with Joanna. Each actor found a delicate balance for their character between ingratiating themselves to the boss while chiding and guiding him from his eccentric lifestyle.
Brandon J. Murphy's Fred the stalwart valet, looked after Garry's personal style while covering his frequent transgressions. Murphy allowed Fred's own transgressions to be more open and accepting than his boss did, perhaps showing the ideal of Carpe Diem. Sherry Etzel created Mrs. Erikson, the housekeeper, as a dark mysterious Nordic personality, but then also portrayed Lady Saltburn, aunt of Daphne Stillington, as a stilted aristocrat, much like the queen. Together, these minor characters added little jewels to the story and Murphy and Etzel made their characters fun to watch.
The title of the play came from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and a song that includes, "present mirth hath present laughter." Today we say, "Carpe Diem." Coward lived it. Garry tried.
As a comedy, Present Laughter started slowly with more exposition than witty one-liners, the magic of Coward's comic genius. The British accents made it hard to catch some lines. That's not to say the accents were bad, but some lines had more content than feeling and we missed some information. As the show continued, however, comic timing sharpened, the wit in the lines jumped out, and we saw a crispness that allowed us to absorb the humor of the characters assaulting each other with little insults that belied their hidden tenderness towards each other. It wasn't possible to hate anyone though we understood the conflict.
Each actor contributed to the mirth with different types of humor. Murphy's Fred spoke with a slightly affected Scottish accent, which he promptly cleaned up when his boss yelled at him. Ferguson's Dixon and Craig's Hugo used zany physical comedy, hinting at Keystone Cops. And Swanson pushed the boundaries of Roland Maule's sanity in every direction. All the actors seemed comfortable with farce, and each found levels of complication to make performances interesting.
Theatre Three's production team made this a thoroughly enjoyable evening of entertainment. We experienced a time in history when being famous was more innocent, when bad days were experienced in style. And when stalkers were refined and polite. We didn't walk away with insights about life, but we did walk away with a couple of hours of very Present Laughter.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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