Through October 28
PRESENT LAUGHTER Festival Theatre/Shaw Festival
The theatrical hot house world of the Shaw Festival is an ideal environment to stage Noel Coward's classic “Present Laughter,” a comedy set in the world of the theater.
The Shaw company members can look on the stage and see the same people they have performed with...worked for...or hated.
There is a cast member in this production I've been assured by company members is thoroughly disliked by other company members.
Garry Essendine would completely understand in this wonderful production.
Steven Sutcliffe's Essendine is the central character, a London West End star for two-decades whose reality and stage life have merged to the point he's nearly lost in his own mind.
He's managed by estranged wife Liz (Claire Jullien), secretary Monica (Mary Haney), valet Fred (James Pendarves), agent Morris (Gray Powell) and producer Hugo (Patrick McManus).
The distraction is Roland Maule (a marvelous Jonathan Tan), a young man who wants to turn theater into psychology with himself as the writer and who won't leave Essendine alone.
Sutcliffe would understand since he played that role for the Shaw in 1990.
Combined with William Schmuck's gloriously designed apartment for Garry, with Saint Paul's visible in the distance, you figure the actor is embarking on his African tour just to keep paying the bills.
The references to Africa are interesting because Coward wrote “Present Laughter” only a few months before the eruption of World War II although it wasn't put on stage for three-years, well into the fighting.
War was coming but this crowd is only interested in the theater and a long trip.
The one area where Essendine's management team has no control of him is in his private life, where an endless procession of women forget their house keys...their “latch keys”...and ask the actor to stay in his spare room.
Within a short time, they are in his bedroom up the stairs past a glorious mural of African animals.
The play opens with the young Daphne Stillington (Julia Course) emerging from the spare room and asking the staff for coffee and to awake Garry so she can say goodby.
Director David Schurmann opens Act two scene two with Joanna (Moya O'Connell), Hugo's wife, emerging from the spare room with exactly the same body language and the cast doing exactly the same things, déja vu all over again.
Of course, that can't work.
While Daphne is some souvenir of a party, Joanna is the philandering wife of one of his closest associates, a man he needs to continue his career.
The play is an amazing collection of towering egos colliding.
Coward was never a popular writer with those great intellects of the reviewing biz, just creating amusements.
While that's true, look up the other stage writers of the day and see how many ever get a production these days while Coward rolls on.
For local audiences, “Present Laughter” is on the Festival Theatre stage and “Blithe Spirit” has graced the Kavinoky Theatre stage, closing its season.
Coward is still around while two other playwrights getting major productions from Shaw this season are names which might not mean anything to younger theater-goers, Terrence Rattigan with “French Without Tears” and William Inge's “Come Back, Little Sheba” which received a fairly strong production this season from The New Phoenix Theatre
Coward had the knack of creating a Swiss watch of a play, carrying the story along while never quite locking himself specifically into a time.
He was an actor for most of his career, frequently in his own plays and successfully giving him a sense of what works on stage.
So was Shakespeare and that may be why the name of this play is taken from “Twelfth Night,” one actor/playwright to another.
The entertainment works here and Schurmann never lets things slow.
He gets strong performances from Sutcliffe, Haney and Pendarves along with the smaller parts, like Tan and Jennifer Phipps' Lady Saltburn.
There isn't a specific costume designer listed for the show but someone did really beautiful work, whether Essendine's dressing gowns or the women's dresses and hats.
The problem part is Jullien's Liz.
You can't hear her and I don't know why because I have seen her on the Shaw stages and on Stratford stages and she was always audible.
Maybe that will be worked out, removing the one noticeable problem in the show.
I saw “Present Laughter” in an audience with hundreds of high schools students who turned off their “smart phones” as the show went along and quietly watched stage magic.
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