An exhibition titled “Noel Coward at 10” is on display at Ten Chimneys, the estate of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin. Among the artifacts are a dressing gown worn in Las Vegas, a pair of carpet slippers with needle point by Merle Oberon, and a cigarette case from Elaine Stritch. It was appropriate then, at least for me, that The Guthrie Theater opened their current season with “Private Lives.”
This is the story of Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, a divorced couple who find themselves remarried to new spouses, and honeymooning at the same hotel. Realizing that they are still in love, the two flee to Paris where they alternately argue and lovingly reminisce about their past. When their new spouses arrive, a fight leads to their final, happy decision about one another. The play was written for Coward’s good friend, Gertrude Lawrence, and introduced Laurence Olivier to world audiences. The play is Coward’s masterpiece, and the first great comedy of the 20th Century.
Directed by Peter Rothstein, the Guthrie’s production is a dream to behold. John Arnone’s sets, especially the Paris penthouse, are eye-popping, while Devon Painter’s costumes and four of the five performances are divine. Much has been said about Sally Wingert’s scene-stealing performance as the French maid, Louise. She is indeed a highlight of the evening. While Kris L. Nelson at first appears awkward as Victor, overall, he delivers a winning performance, as does Tracey Maloney as the put-upon newlywed, Sibyl. As Elyot, Stephen Pelinski mixes both exquisite comic timing with an acid delivery, revealing that he’s just right for stylish comedy.
Where this Private Lives falls short is the unfortunate casting of Veanne Cox as Amanda. This is one of the modern theatre’s greatest roles for women, and it’s been a keystone in the careers of Tallulah Bankhead, Maggie Smith, and, most recently, Lindsay Duncan. However, instead of an elegant, sophisticated woman in love, we get an Amanda who’s merely a cardboard cutout, saying lines without emotion, rather than giving them the rapid-fire crisp and sparkling delivery they require. When Amanda is with Victor, she should be more coquettish, but instead she’s merely posing. Evidently, she has not investigated the subtext, so the audience never sees the attraction or chemistry that draws Amanda to either Elyot or Victor. Furthermore, all her lines are delivered in the same, affected voice. There’s no color or magic, and not even the famous dancing scene in Act 2 has the charm that Coward’s dialogue requires.
Painter’s clothes aren’t the right color or style for Cox’s body type either. They look out of date and period. Perhaps Cox should visit Ten Chimneys and absorb some of the ambiance that the Lunts brought to their estate. It might improve her performance, because, sadly, it ruins an otherwise successful production of a great play.
Due to my schedule, I focused completely on GLBT productions for this year’s Fringe Festival, which opened on August 2, the day after the tragic collapse of the highway bridge over the Mississippi. There were some highlights to this year’s festival, if no particular standouts.
Paul Rudnick’s “Mr. Charles,” Currently of Palm Beach, presented by In the Basement Productions, is essentially a monologue delivered by Mr. Charles, an affected elder, a stereotypical relic, self-described as “the last of his kind.” He hosts a show titled “Too Gay” (at 4am on alternate Thursdays). Shown on cable Channel 69, he shares the program with Shane, his “ward,” a go-go dancer and hustler who has trouble keeping his pants on. Something of an older Jack McFarland type, Shane is played by the comely Greg Hernandez. A highlight of his performance is his description of a superhero orgy, which is hilarious.
Using the device of reading letters, Rudnick’s “Mr. Charles” addresses many social issues, including ex-gays, Judy Garland, cocktail hour, fantasies, lesbians, the Boy Scouts, and gives us a capsule review of American gay theater. He has Shane deliver gratuitous frontal male nudity, after which, his ward recommends that Mr. Charles, who never apologizes for his life, create an army of gay men like himself. In the title role, Jim Bitney delivers a smashing, remarkable performance.
Created and performed by Erika Kate MacDonald, “Fluid” is a solo piece about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality. She alternates characters including a rap artist, a therapist, a talk-show host and the guest, and teaches the audience, in a participation segment, the Indonesian words, “dia” and “belum.” The piece is energetic, rhythmic and balanced for the first 40 minutes, but following the masturbation scene, which director Sophie Nimmannit should have staged in the style of a silent comedy sequence, the show becomes overbearing, as it falls into that old Fringe adage, theatre as therapy.
Perhaps They’re French
Written on a dare, Jeffery Goodson’s therapeutic theatre piece, “Perhaps They’re French” presented by Oaftrax Productions has some clever writing and director Virginia Krubsack has given it some nice touches, but the acting, which focuses on Micky and Jed’s relationship (played by real-life partners) is sometimes uncomfortable to sit through, because there’s too much realism here. Were it not for the injections given by Christine DeZalar-Tiedman, David Schlosser and Mic Weinblatt, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this at all!
Sex across the Curriculum
Jen Tuder’s solo piece, “Sex across the Curriculum” challenges the audience with it’s topical subject matter. Tuder plays Mrs. Glasscock (and all the other roles) whose resignation has been accepted by the school district for reasons she’ll reveal later (she’s a lesbian). With nothing to lose, she teaches the Abstinence Only Sex Ed. curriculum, which preaches students to “be afraid of sex.” Mrs. G tells her students that “masturbation in moderation is healthy,” uses technology to enhance her lesson plan, invites Holly K. to discuss tolerance toward GLBT students, and has Helen Gustafson describe seeing Jesus on the road to Wal-Mart. With the exception of Holly’s sequence — which is honest and sensitive — much of this script lacks shape, pace, and variation. The material needs an overhaul if “Sex across the Curriculum” is going to be completely successful.
Christmas in Bakersfield
Were I to choose one Fringe performer whose work I consistently enjoy, it would have to be Les Kurkendaal, whose latest piece, “Christmas in Bakersfield,” is a treasure. Solo gay artist Kurkendaal, takes the audience, in an enjoyable, intelligent piece to Bakersfield, “the arm pit of California” where his lover, Mike’s family, lives in a gated community. It’s the hometown of Buck Owens and the headquarters for the California branch of the KKK. Having been invited for Christmas, Les finds his holiday rule, “no family drama,” continually broken until he meets the matriarch of the family. Les Kurkendaal loves the Minnesota Fringe and we need to love him back! This is a marvelous show!
The Prince Myshkins
The Nonsense Company was scheduled to perform another show, but due to technical difficulties, offered “The Prince Myshkins” instead. This talented pair of musicians, with Rick Burkhardt on accordion and Andy Gricevich on guitar, offered a program of political songs derived from different sources.
Their opening number took early political writings and informed the audience that “history was made by girlie men.” They compared Arnold Schwarzenegger to Mussolini, and we learned that G.W. Bush’s favorite song is “Wake up Little Suzie” which Bush said was written by Paul Simon. (Of course, it was actually written by the Everly Brothers.)
Their work is full of wordy patter songs, and it would be interesting to see what they could do with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan.
One highlight, “Hurry Up, Akmed,” was a gay love song by a high school boy who’s been caught jerking off with a fellow student, a Muslim, while another song describes the pacifist protest of Mimi LaVally and a hundred nuns who walked onto the campus of the American School in Georgia. The performers keep it light, especially Burkhardt, whose voice resembles that of Jim Henson. “The Prince Myshkins” is a pleasant alternative Fringe Show.
Earnest Ernest or The Sales Pitch
Mrs. Cora Cowbeach is a very proper Minnetonka resident, and Stuart Holland has brought her to life in past Fringe events. Now, Mrs. Cowbeach’s nephew, Ernest Thistlethwaite has been given his chance with “Earnest Ernest or The Sales Pitch.” Ernest is an inventor and salesman, whose products are untried and unpatented. Using a misting bottle, he tries to create a muscle enhancer, mosquito spray and spot remover. Failing this, Ernest creates Earnest Encounters, a weekend gathering, where, upon learning participants’ favorite nursery rhyme, relaxing place and body part, he comes out of the closet and gets naked, much to the shock of his relatives.
The first half of the show is sluggish, lacks variation and is so poorly paced, the laughs aren’t consistent. However, the second half is lively, sharp and much funnier. Earnest Ernest needs more work, but with some trimming promises to be an entertaining addition to the Cowbeach vernacular.
The Arthur Repertory Theatre should merit 5 stars for merely presenting Oscar Wilde’s scandalous melodrama Salome, but this production is the type that reviewers love: one that’s so bad, writing the review is easy. Let me subtract half-stars after recounting what’s wrong here.
First of all, it’s a vanity production, starring and directed by Heather Quigley, who, when she’s not chewing scenery, shrieks her way through the show. She’s costumed herself not as a Judean Princess, but rather as Alice in Wonderland, and furthermore has cast her husband, Kevin Quigley as John the Baptist.
The basics of acting and direction are missing, so that actors are nowhere near their hot spot, their projection is terrible, and the diction of all those upper-midwest accents speaking Victorian British dialogue are tough on the ears.
The movement is, overall, uncontrolled, and the two guards swagger like they’re cruising a gay bar, not keeping a criminal from escaping his prison. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” lacks sexuality, and the military dress is inappropriate.
That being said, I’ll give the show two stars total for Sarah Jones-Larson, who reminds the audience what an art Belly Dancing is, a half-star to Chris Lowry’s Herod, because he seems to understand Wilde’s style, and a half-star to Katherine Engel for a Herodias, whose performance outshines the monstrous Quigley’s in this monstrosity.
Bouffon Glass Menajoree
Decomposing and reinterpreting theatre classics is nothing new, but seldom is it as enjoyable as “Bouffon Glass Menajoree,” Ten Directions’ dissection of Tennessee Williams’ great play. Here, it’s more like Williams meets “Rocky Horror,” and the ensemble manages to get all the highlights into this hilarious approach.
Using stage directions and comments like “it’s in the script,” (especially when referring to racist terms), Amanda (Aimee Leigh German) is now a southern trailer trash food junkie, dressed in pink capri pants. Tom (Lynn Berg) is costumed as a high school linebacker in training and manages to bring the question of Tom’s sexuality to the surface. Laura (Audrey Crabtree) wears a torn hospital gown, diaper, and a handcuff dangles from her wrist. She also plays Mumbledepeg, and, a true schizophrenic, she talks to her “friends,” some pieces of which Amanda chows down on. The magazine subscription scene transforms into a phone sex scene, and when Amanda describes a “silver slipper of a moon,” Tom moons them. Easily the funniest show at the Fringe, “Bouffon Glass Menajoree” is a genuine treat.