Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Private Lives at Cal Shakes

Noel Coward writes the best insults. Even his most timid and "square" characters in Private Lives delivered some zingers.

The plot of Private Lives certainly provides plenty of opportunity for insults. It centers around two couples on their honeymoons, housed next door to each other in a French hotel. The problem? The next-door neighbors are divorcees who had a very fiery, tumultuous relationship. Hilarity ensues, hearts are broken, pillows are ripped open and records are broken over people's heads. It's a screwball comedy with British flair.

And the audience loved it. Those stinging comebacks made them literally react out loud. Which is exactly what any theatre company would want at a first preview.

In fact, the whole performance of Private Lives at the lovely Bruns Amphitheater during the preview on Wednesday night resembled a wrestling match. The audience vocalized absolutely every emotion, cheering, laughing and audibly gasping at how beautiful Diana Lamar's wardrobe for the character of Amanda looked.

I had never been to Cal Shakes before, so the whole experience was something new. And Cal Shakes is certainly an experience.

I have heard the chilly evening weather on a mountainside in Orinda can sometimes detract from enjoyment of the show, but last night it was a fairly mild evening. The free blankets on rental were still welcome, to be sure, but the weather was tolerable. The scenery was gorgeous and truly added to the show, particularly the first act, which is supposed to take place outside. It lent a nice air of credibility to have twilight actually falling around the actors. It really did feel like a hotel balcony in France with the birds chirping and wind rustling the trees. Being outside does have its drawbacks though: There were a couple of times the roar of airplanes overhead completely drowned out the action onstage.

Although I am a Cal Shakes neophyte, I am a Mountain Play veteran, and this felt like a more intimate version of that North Bay experience. You sit in the terrace section and wish that the woman behind you would move her feet just slightly farther away from the side of your face, that the mosquitoes would choose someone else to bother, and that the couple in front of you would stop repeating every line in voices more audible than a whisper (somehow, being outdoors makes people think sound doesn't carry). But in a way all that informality in the audience adds to the communal atmosphere and contrasts nicely with the bygone era Private Lives hearkens back to.

The production itself was certainly fun. It is always impressive when Coward becomes accessible to a modern-day audience. It can easily come off as very stiff, and here it didn't. This play presents a problem in that it makes light of such heavy stuff as domestic violence. But that only rarely bothered me, a testament to the ability of this production to take the audience out of present-day America and into 1930s Europe. In fact, I saw a live version of the love-hate wrestling match on BART on the way home. A young couple was clawing, slapping and pushing, all the while with smiles on their faces. It was an appropriate foil to the silly violence of the production I had just seen.

There were kinks in Private Lives, of course, as it was the first preview. There was one heart-stopping moment when one actor teetered on the edge of the couch he was standing on. The shape of the character arcs could be sharper and bigger--sometimes the acting was extreme when it needed more intimacy and not extreme enough when it needed to be over-the-top. But they're at a good jumping-off point and should have a good rhythm by opening night on Saturday.

The best thing about previews is that actors are still making discoveries. There is lots of cigarette smoking in this piece, and every time someone went to light one the wind would make the task near-impossible. This led to some hysterical moments in which this mundane act became a prolonged ordeal that heightened the tension between the divorces and elicited plenty of laughs. The fact that it kept happening only added. It's a bit the actors should keep regardless of the weather at each performance.

And it feels good to be a part of that process of discovery, to know that your reactions are shaping how this play will change. And it feels good to be out in (tamed) nature, watching art. It feels good to laugh at divorce and fighting and the French. If you go to Private Lives, you'll have a good time, no doubt. At the very least, you'll come away with some great lines to use in the next fight you have with your spouse.

Photo: (L to R) Diana Lamar, Jud Williford, Stephen Barker Turner and Sarah Nealis. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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