Monday, January 26, 2004

Private Lives (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

‘PRIVATE LIVES’ delights at Great Lakes

Playwright Noel Coward is the crown prince of Restoration comedy, in which the battle of the sexes is subjected to amusing scrutiny in order not merely to entertain but to reveal the human compromises, treacheries, and incapacities that lie beneath the mannered sophistication of its protagonists. In a good production, the audience is both entertained and enlightened.

Coward’s ‘PRIVATE LIVES,’ now in production by the Great lakes Theatre Festival, clearly illustrates what happens when a blending of a well written play, a brilliant cast, a talented technical team, and a director who both understands the play and has the creativity to wrench everything from the script, come together. And, as intended, it leaves the audience entertained and enlightened.

It is the 1920’s and divorcees Elyot and Amanda are honeymooning in the same French hotel with their new spouses Sibyl and Victor. Inevitably they meet—they are, after all, staying in rooms with adjoining balconies. Realizing that they are made for each other, Elyot and Amanda abandon their new husband and wife without a backward glance and run away to Paris. There they discover their original true love and then rediscover just why they were unable to live together in the first place, and then discover their original true love, and (you get the point). Sound like a comedy of errors? It is! A delightful comedy of slapstick, double entendres, and hysterically funny lines and deeds.

In order for the play to work we must fall in love with Elyot and Amanda and root for them to find true love, or at least not kill each other with love. We must realize that Elyot really doesn’t believe that “some women should be struck regularly-like gongs” and that love really isn’t “best when it is wise, kind and undramatic.” We must endorse Amanda’s words, “I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lies.”

Under Victoria Bussert’s finely tuned directing, we get everything we need to make the play work…empathy, humor, perfect comedy timing, the right degree of stylization blended with drama, and farce blending well with melodrama. Her staging of the fight scenes and a hysterical dance sequence, all show a keen awareness of what it takes to delight an audience while sticking to the intent and purpose of the author.

While the Cleveland Play House traverses the country in search of actors with mediocre results, GLTF plucked its perfect cast from the local talent pool. And, what a cast it is!

Noel Coward may not have know an Andrew May would come along, but he seemingly wrote the part of Elyot for May. May is a laugh riot as the pompous, ill-tempered, “do-and-later-think-of-what-you just-did” lout. May covers the world of comic devices. With eyes bulging, voice reaching ear-splitting pitches, body quivering, mumphering articulation, and mid-sentence stuttering, charging around the sage like a bull in the proverbial China shop, May develops an endearing character.

As Amanda, Eloyt’s emotional foil, Laura Perotta is wonderful. She uses her body as a comic tool. In the scene where she realizes that Elyot is on an adjoining balcony Perotta becomes like a lizard on a wall, scaling and shrinking in order to see and not be seen. In the delightful fight scenes with May, Perotta lets totally lose, giving life and limb for the comedy effects. Her Amanda is a combination of loving, hateful, shallow, caring, manipulative and emotional vulnerability. This is a career highlight performance.

Kelly Sullivan and Scott Plate, as the cast-off partners are also wonderful. They both develop clear and delightful characters. Their play-closing scene is a masterpiece of hysteria. In her brief appearances on stage, Adina Bloom, as the maid Louise, milks laughs with ease.

There is a tradition in the theatre that kids and animals can be disasters on stage. In this production, even the dog (who is not identified in the program) performs with gleeful perfection.

John Ezell’s gorgeous sets, Charlotte Yetman’s costumes, Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting, Stan Kozak’s sound effects are all totally on target.

CAPUSLE JUDGEMENT; Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s ‘PRIVATE LIVES’ is a must-see theatrical treat. It’s too bad it is only scheduled to run to weeks. If this were an open ended run, it would be a sure fire hit that would play to happily full houses for a long, long, long time!