A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park brings Noel Coward’s iconic comedy ‘Private Lives’ to the Paseo
Staging one of the most famous titles from one of the foremost British playwrights of the 20th century requires, in Emily Heugatter’s estimation, building a strong, clear metaphorical window.
And then gleefully shattering it.
“Comedy of manners, by definition, is a satirizing of the upper classes and the rules that bind them in their social position. Characters realize that they live and die by society’s opinions of them and their actions. What becomes fun is watching the characters throw off the constraints of societal expectations and behave like the truly crass, dirty, disgusting and ultimately loveable human beings that they are,” she said.
“I have described it to my actors as this: In Act I, we build the frame of a window through which the audience views the social expectations that make up this world. We spend the first act building a strong window, and then we spend the rest of the play smashing it in the most hilarious ways possible.”
In her directorial debut for Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park, Heugatter is taking on one of the most enduring selections from the quintessential English multihyphenate: “Private Lives” by prolific British playwright, screenwriter, composer, director, actor and singer Noel Coward.
The uproarious production opens Thursday, with performances continuing through Aug. 27, at the company’s intimate space in the Paseo Arts District.
“It’s considered one of the best, the greatest comedies ever written. … This is like ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ on steroids,” said Kathryn McGill, executive and artistic director and co-founder of Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park. “The turn of a phrase and the way people banter … and toss language back and forth, I just love that kind of humor because it’s really smart humor.”
Although Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park is in the midst of its 33rd summer season, McGill said as far as she can remember, “Private Lives” marks the theater’s first time to perform a play by Coward, one of Britain’s most famous playwrights not named Shakespeare.
“We have wanted to do Noel Coward, and I always wanted to do ‘Private Lives.’ I kept trying to visualize it at the Myriad Gardens, and I could not do it,” McGill said, sitting in the theater’s Paseo space. “It’s airy and it’s funny, but the humor is in the language and the wit. … So, this space is perfect for it.”
An associate professor of theater arts at Edmond’s University of Central Oklahoma, Heugatter specializes in Shakespeare and period styles. Although she is at home directing The Bard’s works, she said “Private Lives” marks her first foray into Coward’s witty world.
“I have been surprised to find that Coward and Shakespeare hold many similarities,” she said in an email interview. “Both writers hold an unmatchable grasp of language, melody, timing and word choice. Both are quite ahead of their time in the depth of humanity that they bring to their multifaceted characters. Both are writing about timeless elements of the human condition that audiences will relate to no matter when these plays are performed; they stand the test of time because of their widespread appeal and relatability.”
Although creating the necessary settings and entrance and exit points in such a small space has been a fascinating challenge for the designers, the director said the snug Paseo venue is ideal for the moments of realism in the play.
“‘Private Lives’ contains so many gorgeous moments of vulnerability and true human connection. … Nothing needs to be overplayed or pushed. As a result, the audience feels as if they are invited into this world rather than it being shoved towards them. I believe that the space itself gives us an advantage in presenting these characters as real people caught in crazy circumstances, rather than caricatures. The audience will find these characters and their relationships extremely relatable,” she said.
“Private Lives” centers on a glamorous divorced couple — Elyot Chase (Greg White) and Amanda Prynne (Renee Krapff) — who unexpectedly meet again across hotel balconies in the South of France while they’re both on their honeymoons with their new spouses. Despite their tempestuous history, the pair finds their passionate love quickly and shockingly rekindled.
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park mainstay David Fletcher-Hall plays Amanda’s new husband, Victor; Claudia Fain costars as Elyot’s new bride, Sybil; and Kristin Kuns appears as Amanda’s French-speaking maid Louise.
“Claudia was one of my musical theater students at UCO, and within the first dozen lines of the show, I’m kissing Claudia. So we laugh a lot and have a lot of fun with that,” said White, who is UCO’s director of musical theater, with a chuckle. ““To be able to do a little posturing with the cigarettes and the matinee idol mustache, it’s all very fun. But that’s all just the exterior of it. You have to find the interior.”
“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives,” Amanda Prynne says in the course of Coward’s door-slamming, vase-throwing romp.
“When we think of Noel Coward, I think we think of that kind of sense of posturing and that very dry, kind of flippant wit that he had. But really, there’s so much more there,” said White, who is playing the role Coward wrote for himself in “Private Lives.”
“Even though he was accepted and spun in those high-society circles, I think a lot of his plays, in many regards, are tongue in cheek and almost poking fun at the 1 percent, as we might call them. And I think kind of the point of the whole show is that none of that matters. None of the trappings of the wealthy … or the elite, the high-society, none of that matters without the basic needs of life – without love.”
Although he died in 1973 at the age of 73, Coward’s plays are still performed and their influence still felt. The just-closed production of Coward’s “Present Laughter,” which won Kevin Kline his third Tony Award, marked the 63rd time a Coward play or musical had been seen on Broadway since the acclaimed writer made his debut with “The Vortex” in 1925, according to Playbill.
Along with Coward himself, productions of “Private Lives” over the decades have starred a veritable constellation of acting luminaries, including Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Maggie Smith, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Collins, Elaine Stritch, Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan and Kim Cattrall. A British revival starring Anna Chancellor (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” movie) and Toby Stephens (TV’s “Black Sails”) was staged as recently as 2012-13.
White said he also sees the play’s influence in TV series like “Fraser” and “Sex and the City” and in movies ranging from the 1940 Oscar winner “The Philadelphia Story” to 2008’s raunchy rom-com “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
“It’s still relevant. I don’t feel like that we’re saying, ‘Oh, let’s pull out some old piece of theater,’” he said. “I think it endures because of the wit of the language, the heightened intelligence of the language, and it’s so funny. I mean, it is so funny.”
Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Aug. 24-26 and 2 p.m. Aug. 20 and 27.
Where: Shakespeare in the Park on Paseo, 2920 Paseo.
Tickets and information: www.oklahomashakespeare.com or 235-3700.