CST’s PRIVATE LIVES Proves Coward’s Brilliance

February 1, 2010 at 12:22 am 1 comment

REVIEW

PRIVATE LIVES

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Written by Noel Coward

Directed by Gary Griffin

Through March 7

* * * .5 (out of 4)

I always knew Chicago Shakespeare Theatre had a lot of money.  But I had no idea they could afford to build a time machine, travel back to the 1930’s, bring back the glamorous Tracy Michelle Arnold, and cast her as Amanda Prynne in Gary Griffin’s delightful production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

Okay, judging from her bio in the program, Arnold is more likely just really adept at immersing herself in Coward’s world than an actual relic from the past.  I can still have my conspiracy theories.  The fact remains, though, that CST’s Private Lives is effervescently charming and reminds us of Coward’s playwriting prowess.

The play develops a plot that has been mined by hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters since Coward’s time.  A divorced couple find themselves stuck in close quarters after years of separation.  Also, they both happen to be honeymooning at the same time with their newest spouse.  I’m pretty sure that both Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock have found themselves in similar situations, but neither of them could handle it with the finesse of Arnold.

Arnold’s effective Amanda would be nothing without a rapid-fire Elyot to match wits with.  Luckily, CST nabbed Robert Sella to play the hilarious role Coward originally penned for himself.  Both actors understand the fundamental questions underlying the script: what really defines a man or woman, and how are we really supposed to get through this thorn bush called marriage?  Sella gleams with Elyot’s tightly-wound wit, prissy mannerisms, and slightly effeminate personality.  Arnold is droll, cunning, and usually more mature than Sella’s flamboyant Elyot.  Placing these two personalities together is like setting fire to a firework store.  They explode passionately, violently, and sexually.  At curtain, the audience is left dripping in the sparkling comedy of Coward’s brilliant writing.

The two left-behind spouses are admittedly less interesting than Amanda or Elyot, but Coward still gives them plenty to work with.  Chaon Cross is a naïve yet decisive Sybil, Elyot newest wife.  Tim Campbell as Amanda’s stiff husband Victor starts off a little too wooden, but he catches up to everyone by his second or third scene.  In terms of appearance, though, he fits the role perfectly: tall, broad-shouldered, clad in a double-breasted suit, manly mustache, and military haircut—the picturesque blockhead.  When he is compared to the diminutive Sella, it is clear that Amanda has a very diverse taste in mates.

Griffin made some fascinating choices with his staging of the play.  Considering the play’s age and popularity, contemporary versions of Private Lives can come off as creaky.  Although this play is a bit too risqué for high school, many of Coward’s other works have fallen into the drama club canon.  We’re used to see it framed by the proscenium arch.  Oftentimes, the distance of the audience from the action is reflexive of our distance to the time period.  Griffin does his best to shake off the notion that this play is simply a funny artifact.  He decided to stage it in-the-round, a rare choice these days.  Although it has its drawbacks (mostly in terms of sightlines), the in-the-round staging makes the enormous Chicago Shakespeare mainstage seem intimate.  And the term “in-the-round” is taken literally here—the entire stage slowly rotates for most of the show.  Scenic designer Neil Patel interesting revolving set adds to the slow-churning chaos of the play.  The production’s set-up is one of the gutsier choices CST has made in recent memory, but it pays off.

My only real complaint, besides Campbell’s occasionally tepidness, is that the fight choreography comes off as weak and stagey.  Maybe it’s a stylistic choice, but after Sella’s and Arnold’s passionate verbal fencing, I feel it would be far more gratifying to see the couple really plow into each other.  The domestic abuse aside, Griffin’s production is both a hilarious romp and a pointed discussion; the shimmering surface offers a glimpse of a boiling sea of issues underneath.

–Barry Eitel

Ticket information can be found at www.chicagoshakes.com

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Eileen  |  February 1, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Whole heartedly agree with all points! What a fantastic showwww!

    Reply

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