Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review-a-Palooza, Part One

Last week I saw shows three nights in a row: Chicago Shakespeare's Private Lives on Wednesday, Profiles' Killer Joe on Thursday, and WNEP's The (edward) Hopper Project on Friday. I've been working on the reviews, and Centerstage has started posting them.

You can find my review of Private Lives here or look at the text below. Overall it was a very worthwhile production. I love this play--it may be on my top 10 favorite scripts list, and this is actually the third time I've seen it. But I'd be happy seeing it every few years for the rest of my life. It's that funny, that true, that stylish. Basically, I want to be Noel Coward, but if I can't, I'll stick with seeing his shows as much as possible. The revolving stage and some of Griffin's changes to the stage directions (which I can explain on request--I don't want to spoil anything for those who don't know the play) do detract, but not very much when everything else works so well.

A word on ticket prices: Chicago Shakespeare is charging their usual exorbitant rates for this show: $55 on weeknights and Sunday nights, $68 on Fridays, and S75 on Saturdays and Sunday matinees. This is despite the fact that, with a cast of only five and far fewer costumes, it is doubtless much cheaper to run than most of what they do. So if you'd like to go, I recommend a trip to http://www.hottix.org/, the half-price ticket site run by the League of Chicago Theatres. The show is often available (as it a large portion of what's onstage in Chicago), and $27.50 is a much more doable proposition.

Anyhow. Here is the review:

Noel Coward made it all look so easy. He wrote plays with astounding speed ("Private Lives" reportedly took only four days), penned songs by the dozen, and starred in everything he wrote. But producing his exquisitely sophisticated and glamorous plays is far from simple; making the style work requires that every element, from performance to design to pacing, be razor-sharp. And while this production isn't quite perfect, it certainly brings off the tricky balancing act delightfully.

Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and Elyot (Robert Sella) were divorced five years ago after three stormy years of marriage. They have each remarried, to Victor (Tim Campbell) and Sibyl (Chaon Cross), and are honeymooning in the South of France — unfortunately in adjoining hotel rooms with shared balconies. They meet again, the old feeling returns, and, unsurprisingly, complications follow.

Coward's genius is in balancing an unending succession of witty lines (tossed off gorgeously by the cast) with real and uncomfortable insights about relationships. Gary Griffin's production walks this tightrope with great aplomb. Arnold is a dream, glamorous and witty as possible while keeping Amanda's human core on display, and while Sella sometimes underlines his jokes, he still brings Elyot to blazing life. Campbell and particularly Cross are just about perfect in their smaller roles.

Griffin keeps the production fleet and delicious, though he makes a few decisions that detract: he's staged the play in the round, which works, but about halfway through the first act the stage starts slowly revolving. It does show the stage from multiple angles, but it's mostly just distracting. And two changes at the end of acts II and III significantly alter the play.

But the production still does an exceptional job at balancing the glittering surface and the profound shadows of Coward's great play, not to mention looking absolutely stunning. It may not be the perfect "Private Lives," but there's still plenty of delight to be had.


Tim said...

Coming to this review late, but I've been out of town...

Anyway, I wanted to agree with nearly every word you've said here. It took me a while to "get" what Arnold was doing with the part, but after that happened - by the end of her first scene, at least - I was completely and absolutely smitten.

The revolving stage didn't work for me at all, maybe even less than it worked for you, it sounds. I thought Griffin did a fine job staging the material in the (static) round, the spinning just called too much attention to itself, and I felt like the actors had to scurry from place to place so they didn't just stand there, turning.

Zev Valancy said...

Glad you agreed--we seemed to be on the same page.

I think it's just that she was doing a slightly different interpretation of the character than normal: a darker-toned voice and perhaps the neuroses and desperation a little closer to the surface. Vitally, though, it was still funny, so we were all set.

The other thing with the revolving stage...it's not that it showed us any part of the stage we couldn't already see. It was specifically designed to look good from every angle. Just because you can do something...