ELIZABETH HURD THEATER REVIEW: Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park opens a wonderful Noel Coward with 'Private Lives'
“Private Lives” is only one of the great Noel Coward’s masterpieces, and it is full of vim and vigor. The play from 1930 is sophisticated and elegant, a hallmark of that glorious period of witty repartee and snappy comebacks. “Private Lives” reveals the essence of the period, when the world was transitioning from the excesses of the 1920s to the stark survival mode brought about by the depression. Audiences were enabled to escape privation and recall worry-free, free-wheeling times. The comedy was then, as it is now, a hilarious escape.
The story is actually quite simple. Two divorced people have moved on and each has married another. They meet again as they chose the same hotel for their honeymoon, and are right next door to each other. Elyot is honeymooning with young bride, Sybil, as Amanda is honeymooning with new husband, Victor. There is no telling what will happen in such an awkward situation, but there is no doubt whatsoever that it is going to be funny. The opportunities for sly digs, catty remarks, double entendres, as well as clever compliments is glorious for the actor and heavenly for the audience. The language is typical of the British dry humor and with Coward’s word skill the humor becomes universally relevant. There are many aspects of society that have changed during the past century, but the scenario and the comedy is a universal pleasure. Today our concern with political correctness inhibits creative retorts in conversation. Coward was never inhibited by that, and the freedom of expression he exhibited allowed his work to soar into broad areas of comedy that might never occur today. But the result is not in the least bit offensive to anyone and would pass any test of political correctness.
Today, we hunger for the wit in a Coward play and the production of “Private Lives” from Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park delivers a repast for the Gods. Emily Heugatter directs “Private Lives” with skill and a broader freneticism that gives this production a greater impact for modern audiences. The subtlety that marks earlier productions is absent, but the broadness in this interpretation is eminently suitable for today.
Renee Krapff is often seen in Shakespeare in the Park productions. She is a skilled actress performing in a role that seems to have been written for me. (Of course, part of Coward’s skill comes from the universality of that feeling among all actresses regarding the character of Amanda.) She plays the part masterfully, seducing the audience with her beauty and brains, as she seduces her husband(s) with but a look. When she becomes strident, she does so like a gushing waterfall; when her edges are soft and romantic, her voice becomes sweet, an observation that former husband Elyot makes as he remembers their volatile marriage. Greg White is an accomplished performer nationally and is currently Director of Musical Theatre at the University of Central Oklahoma. He is a natural for the role of Elyot, slightly disdainful and above the fray with an inner passion that is spectacular upon release. These two are brilliantly cast together as their chemistry is definitely explosive—perfect for their characters.
Their new spouses are also cast ideally. David Fletcher-Hall is Victor, sophisticated English gentlemen with the tendency toward stuffiness that is so endearing in a proper English gentleman. Fletcher-Hall is perfect and his smattering of slightly confused expressions is expressively wonderful. Hailing from England, his accent is a little more subtle than the others, but of course, exactly right as that is his accent! Claudia Fain is the young and lovely Sybil—a bit empty headed and shallow. Her characterization is quite frenetic in a show where flamboyance and exuberance are the normal conditions that it is sometimes almost overwhelming.
Nevertheless, it is evidently the choice of Heugatter to direct all the cast members into the more slapstick and broad depiction of the characters as opposed to capitalizing on subtlety. Considering the differences in culture from 1930 to 2017, the choice is a valid one, and clearly the younger members in the audience responded quite positively to the production. More sophisticated audience members respond just as positively—the wit is delightfully pervasive throughout “Private Lives,” especially with the intimacy in the space on Paseo.
The role of the maid, Louise, is delightfully portrayed by Kristin Kuns, whose sense of comic timing is delightful as she deals with two couples in very unexpected combinations. Hers is the example of a delicious moment from a small role and she makes the most of her appearance in more ways than one.
Heugatter is obviously a very talented director and has worked extensively with companies specializing in Shakespeare. She is the author of "Playground Shakespeare: Bringing the Bard to Life," a guide for teachers of all grade levels to bring Shakespeare into the classroom. That sounds like the ideal addition to any teacher’s bookshelf, or anyone with ideas about bringing the classics to young people.
“Private Lives” plays through Aug. 27, 2017, at the Paseo District location, 2920 Paseo. Reservations can be made by visiting www.oklahomashakespeare.com or calling 405-235-3700. Curtain is at 8 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee curtain. Noel Coward isn’t done often enough to consider missing this; it may not come your way again soon! Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park will return to their outdoor location at the Myriad Botanical Gardens for “Hamlet” opening, Sept. 14, 2017. There are a host of other fascinating services available through Shakespeare in the Park, and a visit to the web site will be an interesting exploration opening up lots of great opportunities.