Category Archive for: ‘Victor Cordell’

Present Laughter

Carpe Diem



Noël Coward was a grand exemplar of a London social butterfly during the middle half of the 20th century. Urbane, yet flamboyant, he was one of many closeted gay men at the apex of the arts world. A successful playwright, he penned a number of bubbly comedies that receive frequent revival, including 1939’s “Present Laughter,” the first word of which is pronounced as if it were the synonym to gift. The title refers to living in the moment. Theatre Rhinoceros, which presents the current production, is the world’s longest running queer theater company, and the fit of play and producer makes for a lighthearted, entertaining evening.

Romantic entanglements in Coward’s plays were always heterosexual, and there would have been no tolerance for any other during his time. In “Present Laughter,” Garry Essendine, a proxy for Coward himself, is a vain actor played by John Fisher, artistic director of The Rhino and director of this play. Garry’s private life is stamped by a marriage separation with Liz, with whom he remains friendly, and a procession of available women who seem to have lost their latch key and need a place to spend the night.

PresentLaughter-8919_A_HiResThe storyline is nominally about Garry’s preparing for a trip to Africa in which he will be leading a troupe to perform several plays in numerous locales. The roles of the four key women in Garry’s life at the time of the play are each acted effectively and with considerable flair. Liz has not lived with Garry for several years but still comes and goes as if they were still together. While the least meaty of the larger roles, Tina D’Elia plays her with great sympathy and understanding. Kathryn Wood is Garry’s secretary, Monica. She exhibits the expected skills of managing the professional life of one who is in constant chaos, delivering sarcasm and razor sharp ripostes with wonderfully smiling severity. Amanda Farbstein is the temptress Joanna, who on the one hand is not fully part of Garry’s inner clique, yet she is the most intimately involved, bedding all three of the males in the group. Farbstein conveys a world-weary, handsome wickedness about her that is spot on. Finally, Adrienne Dolan is chipper and effervescent as the youthful, star-struck Daphne, who hopes to insinuate herself into Garry’s life.

Some have said that Coward had man friends in mind as he depicted these escapades.  But any gay inferences drawn from the play are between the lines and definitely would not be in the stage directions. Thus, in earlier times when homosexuality wasn’t even publicly acknowledged, Garry would be played with great flair, but within the range of being considered “artistic,” or slightly effeminate. The Rhino production is a great example of how directorial discretion can shift the meaning of a play considerably.

Fisher departs from tradition in two ways. First, he plays Garry with over-the-top farcical gaiety in a high energy fashion that looks to require so much energy that you can understand why Fisher is so svelte. Second, his own stage direction creates non-verbal action replete with man kisses, hand holding and humping that were clearly not within Coward’s realm of consideration for the stage.

PresentLaughter-9324_A_HiResSo what Fisher has done is to interpret and present a sub-text that might plausibly be how Coward would have directed the same text in today’s more open society. It should be noted that Rhino recently produced Coward’s “Song at Twilight,” with Fisher in the same artistic capacities as in this play. His interpretation of Coward’s semi-autobiographical character in the earlier production was consistent with this one, so it is a vision that Fisher is clearly committed to.

The question remains. Does it work? Fisher is very talented and does well at what he attempts. For those who like unmitigated farce with mugging and tantrums, it will work well. Even if one considers the central character a bit overblown, the remaining characters are much more grounded and give the play a balance that allows it to be appreciated for the cleverness of its wit and its situations.

The staging is handsome, with an Art Deco parlor room and unobtrusive lighting and sound. Darkened scene transitions are cleverly handled by having Ryan Engstrom, who otherwise plays Fred the butler, tickle the ivories and sing Noël Coward songs. In all, the evening is a humorous look back at a social era of frivolous simplicity.

“Present Laughter” is produced by Theatre Rhinoceros and plays at Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, through June 18, 2016.


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