Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2010 season

The 36-year-old Michael Therriault, who once played Ariel in The Tempest, will play Peter Pan at Stratford in 2010

Life is too busy and money too scarce for us to drive all the way to Stratford, Ontario to see a disappointing show; we’ve got to be selective. The eight shows we saw in 2009 were mostly worth it; Julius Caesar and the musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story were memorable. But Bartholomew Fair and Macbeth left us fidgeting and annoyed, respectively, and made us feel we might have given them a miss.

Happily, for the 2010 season, the powers at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (here’s its website) have decreed that there will once more be four Shakespeare plays on the playbill (there were only three in 2009) out of a total of 12 shows. Here’s what we think of the menu, which also includes Kiss Me Kate, Evita, and J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan:

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

This is the 2010 Stratford show we’re looking to most. It’s the story of Leontes, a Sicilian king who becomes violently jealous of his wife Hermione’s friendship with his friend Polixenes.

Ben Carlson

The Winter’s Tale should have a lot going for it. Marti Maraden was one of the main victims of the Stratford’s ill-conceived and short-lived experiment in having three co-artistic directors a couple of years ago, but she apparently holds no grudges and is coming back to direct this play. We like her Shakespeare better than anyone’s. Ben Carlson, a first-rate Shakespeare actor (Hamlet in 2008, Brutus in 2009), will play Leontes. Tom Rooney’s first two seasons at the Stratford have made him one of our favorite actors; he will play the philosopher-peddler Autolycus, just as in 2009 he played the philosophical Porter in Macbeth. Yanna McIntosh will, thankfully, take the place of the worst actress we’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play, Nikki James, who was originally scheduled to play Hermione.

In one scene, the playwright directs that the character Antigonus, sent by Leontes to Bohemia to abandon Hermione’s (and his) baby to the cruel elements, should “exit, pursued by a bear.” Back in 1600, coming up with a suitable live bear for a show couldn’t have been very hard, since the drama theaters were also used for bear-baiting exhibitions. Fortunately, Ontario practically swarms with bears, so getting one should be a cinch. Should make for a lively show.

James M. Barrie

Peter Pan (by James M. Barrie, at the Avon Theater)

This is not, repeat not, a musical play, and it won’t be much like the treacly, annoying thing with Mary Martin that you’ve seen on television. It’s J. M. Barrie’s original stage play, first performed in 1904, and it’s one of the finest plays in the English language. At Stratford in 2010, the androgynous Peter Pan will be be played by Michael Therriault.

With Peter Pan, the Stratford Festival is trying to tap the kids’ market. But when we first saw the play at the Shaw Festival a few years ago, we found that Peter Pan was a dark, decidedly adult play, apt to scare the bejeezus out of the average five-year-old. Then again, maybe today’s five-year-olds, weaned on Darth Vader and Spiderman, can take it.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest (at the Festival Theater)

Christopher Plummer, who be 80 years old next summer, is coming back to Stratford to play Prospero. Surely there’s no finer Shakespeare actor in the world; Mr. Plummer’s King Lear at Stratford seven years ago was hands down the most breath-taking theater experience we’ve ever had. We were mesmerized by the zillions of great theater anecdotes in Mr. Plummer’s recent autobiography, In Spite of Myself (see Emsworth’s review at this post).

So even though it was only five years ago that we saw the late William Hutt in a marvelous performance of The Tempest at Stratford, we wouldn’t think of missing the 2010 show, though we do wish someone besides Des McAnuff were directing it. Folks will need to get their tickets for The Tempest early; the show is only running from June 11 through September 12, and at a relaxed schedule designed no doubt to keep Mr. Plummer from wearing out. Don’t plan to save money at a preview performance; the Stratford Festival is charging full price for every single performance of The Tempest.

Cole Porter, no doubt in the process of composing songs for Kiss Me, Kate

Kiss Me, Kate (music by Cole Porter, at the Festival Theater)

Another opening, another show. We love the songs of Cole Porter, and the plot of Kiss Me, Kate might have been written by P. G. Wodehouse himself, so this classic musical is tempting. Like so many musicals, it’s a show business story, and it has a play within a play: one of the characters, Fred Graham, is directing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Fred’s ex-wife Lilli as Katherine the shrew. Real-life actress Chilina Kennedy will play Fred’s girlfriend Lois Lane. Our favorite songs: “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “So In Love.”

Dangerous Liaisons (by Christopher Hampton, at the Festival Theater)

This is the racy play on which the 1988 movie, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, was based; you probably saw it. It takes us back to eighteenth-century France, when the amoral, idle nobility amused themselves by playing humiliating practical jokes on one another. Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna will play the jaded aristocrats whose game is to bring about the deflowering of a young girl and the fall from virtue of a married woman. Martha Henry will also be in the cast.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It (at the Festival Theater)

This would be among our top choices at Stratford for 2010 if it weren’t for our fear that the Stratford Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, who has designated himself to direct it, will spoil the play with distracting gimmicks. (We have the same fear for The Tempest, but trust that Christopher Plummer will keep his director focused on the story of the play.) We have now seen two deeply unsatisfactory Shakespeare plays directed by Mr. McAnuff: 2008’s Romeo and Juliet and 2009’s Macbeth, and we are not alone in thinking that this is not where Mr. McAnuff’s talents lie. Couldn’t he have taken on Kiss Me, Kate instead? This is sheer stubbornness.

Tom Rooney

But As You Like It seemingly has a foolproof cast, with Paul Nolan (star of 2009’s West Side Story) as Orlando, Tom Rooney in the dual roles of the good duke and the bad duke, Ben Carlson and Lucy Peacock as the unenthusiastic fiancées Touchstone and Audrey, and Brent Carver as Jacques. How badly could the play be spoiled?

Evita (by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the Avon Theater)

This is not our favorite Rice-Webber show; indeed, we have only lukewarm enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber shows after Jesus Christ Superstar. But Evita should pack them in, as did West Side Story in 2009. And as the very first rock-style musical presented at the Stratford Festival, it’ll presumably draw a younger audience.

Not a bad marketing move, considering that the Stratford Festival depends so heavily now on revenues from its high-priced musicals. Evita will be directed by Gary Griffin, who did practically everything right with West Side Story, and it will star Chilina Kennedy, who was dazzling as Maria in West Side Story and is now clearly Stratford’s diva of choice. Ms. Kennedy will play the charismatic wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron, and everyone will sing along with “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

This is yet another musical show — but one more in the nature of a revue, with commentary from the performers, than a play. Brent Carver will be the lead troubadour, singing the songs of the late Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, who wrote his songs in French.

We know a few Jacques Brel songs that were translated into English and became hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like “If You Go Away” and “Seasons in the Sun.” But most of the songs in the show won’t be familiar to us. Will there be English subtitles? We’re probably not adventurous enough to find out.

Shakespeare’s The Two Gentleman of Verona (at the Studio Theatre)

Emsworth has never paid much attention to this early Shakespeare play, let alone seen it performed, but a recent reading has whetted his interest. It’s the story of two pals, Valentine and Proteus, and their women; no sooner has Proteus successfully courted one named Julia than he leaves for Milan, where he promptly forgets her and falls in love with a duke’s daughter, Silvia, who falls in love instead with Valentine even though the duke intends her for someone else. The plot will seem familiar to hardcore fans of P. G. Wodehouse, who stole it for his 1931 comic novel Big Money.

In 2009, instead of a fourth Shakespeare play, the Stratford Festival put on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which had a large cast and a lot of fancy original props. It couldn’t have been cheap to mount. The Two Gentlemen of Verona will be more economically performed at the small Studio Theatre space, where the audience surrounds the stage. There will be only a short window of opportunity to see this play; it will run for less than two months (from July 30 to September 19, 2010).

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (by Michel Tremblay, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

In its 2009 season, the Shaw Festival offered Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times; in 2010, the Stratford Festival will put on Tremblay’s well-received 1998 play For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, a comedy based on the gay French-Canadian playwright’s relationship with his mother.

Lucy Peacock will play Nana (the mother character); Tom Rooney will be the Narrator (presumably a stand-in for Tremblay himself). This play will run for only two months, from July 27 to September 26, 2010.

Do Not Go Gentle (by Leon Pownall, in the Studio Theatre)

A one-man show starring Geraint Wyn Davies could be really good; our appreciation for Mr. Wyn Davies grows year by year. He will play Dylan Thomas soliloquizing about his life and how he rates as a poet compared to William Shakespeare.

This very show actually just opened on Broadway! (We write as of December 8, 2009.) It won’t appear at Stratford, though, till July 2, 2010, where it will run through August 22.

King of Thieves (by George F. Walker, in the Studio Theatre)

This play is actually a musical — another one! — but the Stratford Festival evidently doesn’t dare to risk putting this world-premiere piece in one of its larger theaters. Wonder what Mr. Walker thinks of that! The show is a new take on old material, a tale of a couple of crooks (Mac, to be played by Evan Buliung, and his father-in-law Peachum, to be played by Sean Cullen).

George F. Walker

Its source is John Gay’s 1720 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera (whose characters included Macheath and Polly Peachum), but most of us are more familiar with Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s 1928 The Threepenny Opera. Those were both set in London; Walker’s version is set in New York City in 1928.

This is the second year in a row that the Stratford Festival has put on a work by Walker; we didn’t see last year’s Zastrozzi. A few years back, we saw Walker’s straight play Nothing Sacred at the Shaw Festival, but it didn’t make a lasting impression.

From its press releases, we gather that the Stratford Festival will have avoided losing money during 2009 on the strength of having had two extraordinarily popular musical shows. By offering Peter Pan and Christopher Plummer in The Tempest on top of Evita and Kiss Me, Kate, management has probably taken its best shot at increasing the number of sold-out shows in 2010.

We can’t help noticing that there’s nothing on the 2010 playbill even remotely comparable to the Ben Jonson, Racine, and Chekhov plays that were seen in 2009. In fact, aside from the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan, the Stratford is offering mostly contemporary shows. The Stratford Festival will be that much less of a “classical” repertory theater company in 2010.