Saturday, June 7, 2014

Private Lives at CSC

Excellent direction, good acting, a dreary set, 
and an opening night audience from Hades

     D. Lynn Meyers’ strongly directed and skillfully acted production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives opened last night at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.  Coward can be difficult to pull off because his works seem simply charming.  Actors that play the lines for laughs will be left in the dust because
Coward didn’t write funny.  Oliver Goldsmith and Neil Simon wrote funny, but Coward is funny in the situations he sets up and the pauses and reactions between the lines.  It’s inconceivable that Harold Pinter could have developed his style without Coward’s influence.  

Victor, Amanda, Elyot and Sibyl Together Onstage*
     This production benefits from a director and cast that understand where the laughs actually exist, though all the actors were able to play some of the lines for laughs as well – a welcome addition.  Meyers goes for teasing out the darker aspects of the script, which is the love/hate relationship of a couple with a history together.  Simultaneously, there is a Coward ‘style.’  It depends on a loose insouciance that can turn dangerous.  After all, Coward sets up the physical violence of the central relationship from the beginning.  

     Elyot is newly married to Sibyl and Amanda is newly married to Victor, but Elyot and Amanda are star-crossed or hell-bound, depending on their patience and mood.
Elyot and Amanda*
Coward writes about manners in most of his work and, in this one, those characters with the worst manners (Elyot and Amanda) are the most fascinating.  One of the problems with the production is that Brent Vimtrup (Victor) and Sara Clark (Sibyl) deliver the style and the more annoying aspects of their
Sara Clark as Sibyl*
characters with, respectively, nimble physical agility and spectacular wit.  Clark walks on to a stage and you just know she’ll be funny quickly.  Kelly Mengelkoch captures Amanda’s fickleness and moodiness subtly.  However, she couldn’t keep her hand out of her hair and what seemed initially a psychological gesture descended into a nervous tic.  Jeremy Dubin (Elyot), an excellent technical actor, doesn’t possess the mercurial charm to pull off this character; he seems tense and tough from the first so we’re just waiting until he gets into it physically with Amanda.  This may have been due to the godawful first night audience, but more about that later.

     Andrew Hungerford’s sets look like material remnants that might drop and fall in the first act, though they’re supposed to be Deauville hotel exterior walls and the rear scrim doesn’t stretch far enough in the second and third act Paris apartment set so the off-stage black curtains read from each side of the backdrop (although it appears fine in the possibly retouched production photos).  Community and high school theatres are able to cover properly so I don’t understand why CSC doesn’t, especially in its 20th season and when it charges regional professional prices.  I longed for Brian c. Mehring (Ensemble’s resident designer) to do a quick make over especially of the color palette.  In fact, I know a semi-retired professional who could build beautiful sets on a short budget if he were asked. 

     Lighting was minimal and mostly backlit because of the awkwardness of the space.  I wish CSC would rethink that and take it seriously, though they’ve been in this location for fifteen years or so without much change beyond replacing the seats.  Madeline Greenwalt’s costumes were well done.

     The audience was one of the rudest I’ve ever encountered.  There was one middle-aged couple that kept up a running commentary (most of which had little to do with what was happening onstage), then kissed a lot, spilled wine all over the floor, and ignored the sharp looks and shushing they received from various other audience members.  The managing director sat behind them and didn’t seem to react at all – I guess she’s used to it.  The couple left after the second act, though we’d moved after the first act.  We then encountered another middle-aged couple where the husband kept bopping around almost constantly (maybe he had St. Vitus’s Dance) and his wife gave him a neck and back rub because, I assume, she was happy for a night out.  There were two empty seats beside him and I assumed she might give him a full body massage, but no such luck.  

     Most of the rest of the audience had drunk so much free liquor before the show that they seemed half slugged.  CSC needs to rethink that generosity.  Semi-closeted alcoholism is the dirty secret of middle-class Midwesterners and it’s pathetic.  Some of them – most likely subscribers – had that glazed, polite look of people attempting to appreciate, but not enjoying, ‘culture.’  The actors deserved more and they did receive a standing ovation, but that’s de rigeur nowadays in Cincinnati, and the audience was probably feeling guilty anyway.

*Photos by Rich Sofranko

Private Lives runs through June 29, 2014

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