REVIEW: Blithe Spirit (Steel Beam Theatre)

A spirited show in the suburbs

 

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Steel Beam Theatre presents
 
Blithe Spirit
 
By Noël Coward
Directed by Terry Domschke
Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles(map)
Through May 2 tickets: $23-$25  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Theaters may be fewer and farther between than in Chicago, but such companies as Steel Beam Theatre, Writers’ Theatre and Metropolis Performing Arts Centre continue to show that there’s culture in the suburbs. As airy as an unseen specter, Steel Beam’s Blithe Spirit is a frightfully good time.

blithe%20daily%20herald%20text700_rightTerry Domschke directs a delightful production, full of deft touches. Everything from the carefully arranged period drawing-room set to the clever costumes shows a fine attention to detail. Produced in three acts with two intermissions, just as it would have been in at its 1941 London opening, it makes you understand why the original ran for 1,997 performances amid World War II. The timing could be a trifle more brisk, but that’s quibbling.

Noël Coward’s keen and cutting wit shines in this delectable play. The plot centers on novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, a flippant and debonair couple who invite the local psychic for dinner and a seance. They, and their other guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, are skeptics: The evening is merely a ruse to provide background for Condomine’s upcoming book.

But the medium, Madame Arcati, turns out to be the real thing. She accidentally conjures up Condomine’s deceased first wife, Elvira, who refuses to go away again — turning the Condomine household into an otherworldly menage a trois.

Orange-haired, behatted and draped in necklaces, Donna Steele’s marvelous Madame Arcati galumphs around the stage, jingling, in colorful costumes and comic triumph — at turns fussy old woman and majestic mystic — emanating palpable glee at each spiritual manifestation.

R. Aaron Thomann is ever so urbane as Charles, stirring up martinis and placating his live and ghostly wives with wonderful expressiveness. At first convinced he’s going mad, he selfishly comes to appreciate having his first wife’s witty shade on the premises … at least until the dead woman’s real purpose for reanimating becomes apparent.

steel-banner Elvira isn’t the kind of ghost who clanks about in chains and a sheet. She’s ethereally lovely and sharp as knives. Although only Charles can see her, the ghostly lady still manages to infuriate the priggish Ruth, who becomes bent on exorcizing her spirited rival.

Jocelyn Mills plays an effervescent Elvira, glittering with ectoplasmic makeup and always ready with a riposte. Katherine Bettinghaus provides counterpoint as a fuming, but elegant, Ruth, although her emotional scenes sometimes seem a little forced. Meredith Koch offers some fine comic turns as the inept maid Edith, hurrying and scurrying, while Thom Reed and Nancy Kolton fill out the cast as the stolid Bradmans.

Blithe Spirit may be Coward’s frothiest comedy, an ethereal confection of a play. While it’s become something of a period piece, there’s life in the old ghost yet — as Steel Beam Theatre’s hilarious production shows.

 

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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REVIEW: Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare)

Noël Coward skewers conventional morality with droll finesse

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

 

Private Lives

 

by Noël Coward
directed by Gary Griffin
thru March 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

For delivering comic barbs with Cowardesque suave perfection, it’s tough to beat Robert Sella. One expects he could make even the most insipid rom-com crackle, zing and pop through sheer force of his timing and droll finesse. Noel Coward’s Private Lives – wherein Sella is currently stealing the show with his irresistible irreverent panache – is, of course, anything but insipid. It snaps from start to finish with wisdom and witticisms, many at the cost of so-called conventional morality. As Elyot Chase in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Coward’s sparklingly well-made play, Sella seems born to wear the debonair character’s smoking jacket while tossing off withering repartee with the effortless brilliance of Beethoven practicing his scales. Almost.

private-lives-2 That sterling, razor-witted acumen with Coward’s inarguable wit isn’t quite enough. Yes, Sella can ignite an exquisite maelstrom of delicious comedy simply by flicking a napkin or aping a boxer’s stance. But in addition to humor, Private Lives rests on sexual chemistry, and there, director Gary Griffin’s staging – and Sella – fall short.

When Elyot and his ex-wife Amanda Prynne meet cute whilst on their respective honeymoons to new spouses, the attraction between former spouses is so white-hot that they abandon their new partners and flee for Amanda’s Parisian flat for a solid week of wall-to-wall sex. Or at least, it should be white-hot. Here, Elyot and Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold, worldly, brittle and dry as a perfectly aged Savignon Blanc) are more intellectual than sexual soul mates. Quip for quip, Amanda and her ex- are as perfectly matched as Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio or Albee’s George and Martha. Watching them spar is a joy. Watching them get busy atop a sleek grand piano? Not so much.

As for Sybil Chase and Victor Prynne – the abandoned half of the two newlywed couples – they’re utterly winning in their indignant conventionality. As the new Mrs. Chase, Chaon Cross is an ingénue with delicate yet unmistakable shadings of a harpy in-training – you just know she’s going to turn into her battle-ax mother by the time she hits 40. And as Amanda’s new husband Victor Prynne, Tim Campbell is a pitch-perfect righteous blockhead, a slab of ham and sensible haircut of a man, all tiresome chivalry and hail-fellow-well-met. He’s the opposite of Sella’s Elyot, physically, morally and intellectually, and the results – both visually and verbally – are hilarious.

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Not so effective is the intermittently and slowly rotating turntable that Griffin employs to give the audience a sense of voyeurism. While we do get to see the Prynne/Chase shenanigans from every angle, that rotation is a distraction – particularly when it starts up after being still for a while. It can be difficult to focus on the dialogue and characters when suddenly the set starts spinning on its axis, no matter how leisurely. Furthermore, the in-the-round staging means everyone in the audience spends at least some time staring at the backs of heads or (during scenes involving people prone on that piano or the purple velvet fainting couch) the soles of feet. It’s frustrating,

All that said, Private Lives is worthy of its ticket price. It’s Sella’s show, and chemistry or no, he nails the subversive genius of Coward’s wit. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s sleek 1930s costume design (the hats alone are to die for) and you’ve got a production that’s sumptuously handsome. As well as extremely funny.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Private Lives continues through March 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $55, $68, $75. For more information, call 312/595-5600 or go to www.chicagoshakes.com

Below: First rehearsal – the director talks about staging Private Lives in-the-round

Also, read an interview with director Gary Griffin

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Theater Thursday: Private Lives by Noel Coward

Thursday, January 14

Private Lives  by Noel Coward

Chicago Shakespeare Theater 
800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

cst private livesFollowing his celebrated production of Amadeus, CST’s own Gary Griffin directs Noël Coward’s stylish, savvy comedy about divorcés who meet up quite by accident -on their second honeymoon, with brand-new spouses in tow. Fireworks fly as their reunion reveals just how quickly romance and rivalry can be rekindled. Get a behind-the-scenes look at this unique in-the-round setting and practice your own witty banter over complimentary beverages and appetizers before this sharp and scintillating performance. For more information, including videos and interviews, visit www.chicagoshakes.com

 

Event begins at 6:30 p.m. 

Show begins at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $25 

For reservations call 312.595.5600 and mention “Theater Thursdays,” or visit www.chicagoshakes.com and use promo code “THURSLIVES.” Subject to availability. Limit 4 per person.

Chris Jones announces 10 best plays of 2009

The Tribune’s Chris Jones announces Top 10 Plays of 2009

For the complete description, explanations and reviews of these plays (and others), be sure to visit Chris Jones’ excellent blog: The Theater Loop


1. The Arabian Nights by Mary ZimmermanLookingglass Theatre  (our review)

 

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2. The History Boys by Nicholas HytnerTimeline Theatre 

 

3. The Overwhelming by J.T. RogersNext Theatre 

4. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer DiazVictory Gardens (our review)

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5. Blackbird by David HarrowerVictory Gardens (our review)

 

6. Cabaret by Kander and EbbDrury Lane Oakbrook (our review)

 

7. The Mystery of Irma Vep by Sean GraneyCourt Theatre (our review)

 

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8. Graceland by Ellen FaireyProfiles Theatre (our review)

 

9. Oh Coward!devised by Roderick CookWriters’ Theatre (our review)

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10. Stud Terkel’s Not WorkingSecond City e.t.c.

 

Chris Jones’ list of 10 shows that “should have made the list”

Desire Under the ElmsGoodman Theatre

Little Foxes Shattered Globe Theatre 

Miss SaigonDrury Lane Oakbrook

Old Glory Writers’ Theatre

Our Lady of the Underpass Teatro Vista Theatre

Rock ‘n’ RollGoodman Theatre

Top Dog/Underdog American Theater Company and Congo Square Theatre

 Twelfth NightChicago Shakespeare Theatre 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Marriott Theatre

REVIEW: Writers’ Theatre’s “Oh Coward!”

Mad about the boy!!

 

Doug,_John,_Kate_on_piano,_Rob-H 

Writers’ Theatre presents:

OH COWARD!

A Musical Comedy Revue

Words and music by Noel Coward
Devised by
Roderick Cook
Musical direction by
Doug Peck
Directed by Jim Corti

Thru March 21st (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

“I am not a heavy drinker. I can sometimes go hours without touching a drop.”

Writers’ Theatre presents OH COWARD!, a musical revue celebrating the words and music of Noel Coward. Nicknamed “The Master,” Noel Coward (1899-1973) was a playwright, lyricist, composer, actor, singer, director and producer. The musical revue was devised by Roderick Cook, who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in 1987 for his performance in it.

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

This memorable Coward quote reflects the philosophical basis and impetus for much of his work. The bawdy lyrics of songs like “Mrs. Worthington,” that tell a stage mother not to put her ugly daughter on stage, are shockingly hilarious. Coward is The Master in spinning tales of drinking indulgences, sexual indiscretions and people that annoy into delightfully witty tunes. A 1930’s party-goer would have been wise to cozy up to Coward for an evening’s amusement of gossip and to avoid becoming a target. Without Coward’s actual presence, OH COWARD! is the perfect party substitute.

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First, any successful party requires the right ambiance. Scenic designer, Kevin Depinet , has reconfigured the theatre space into a 1930’s night club with blown-up pictures of Noel Coward on the wall. The audience sits in a U-shape, allowing for a true intimate cabaret experience. Next, the wrong music can be a party buzz kill. For this particular soiree, Coward’s songs are at the epicenter of the festivities. Under the musical direction of Doug Peck, the lively melodies add to the fast paced merriment. At pivotal moments, the soulful ballads “If Love Were All” and “Mad About The Boy”, both arranged by Peck, give the party guests a breather and a shocker at the honest glimpse into Coward’s private isolation.

The absolute key to turning any gathering into a bash is if the host knows the right people to invite. Director Jim Corti has the A-List in attendance with Kate Fry, Rob Lindley and John Sanders. With a glass of champagne or a martini, party gossip is best delivered with playful wit. OH COWARD! has a superstar tri-fecta! Under The Masters’ (both Coward and Corti) influence, Fry, Lindley and Sanders are beautifully synchronized in songs and stories. The best part of their harmonized performance is the genuine enjoyment that radiates. In true imagined Coward fashion, these three seem to have spontaneously taken over a party with their flawless entertainment skills. OH COWARD! is THE party of the year!

“I have always been very fond of (drama critics)… I think it’s so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theatre and know so little about it.”

Oh Noel, you are hilarious!

Rating: ★★★½

 

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