BWW Review: Misbehave with MCT and Succumb to Coward's Fanciful FALLEN ANGELS
One of the hidden elements entwined in Noël Coward's wry play Fallen Angels becomes the French love song "Mêmes les Anges"--which translates the first line to: "Even the angels succumb to love." On stage in the beautiful Cabot Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's (MCT) delightful production of Coward's 1925 play, written when he was in his 20's, use this love song's words combined with the lyrics to Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" to underpin the deceptive meaning of the scintillating humor in Coward's words.
Coward's script includes subjects first criticized for being indecent and immoral in the 20's,while even ninety years later Coward still bravely questions the sexual status quo with brilliant humor, a forerunner perhaps to today's reality television shows. Stories that picture the travails of two BFFs, in Coward's play Julia and Jane, who send their respective husbands, Fred and Willy, on a country weekend to play golf. In the meantime, the women anticipate the return of a previous French lover named Maurice Duclos they each experienced in Venice and Florence before they were married.
Invite a sassy new maid who works for Julia and Fred named Saunders to the scene and Coward's mayhem ensues. In an elegant London flat designed by Maureen Chavez-Kruger, bright wit and whimsical fun absolutely overflow during the two hour plus performance. Costume designer Jason Orlenko adds to this ambiance by giving the three women a fanciful flair to their garments so the gowns flow with movement using short trains, translucent veils, or voluminous petticoats and skirts.
With their husbands away, Julia and Jane reignite their competition for Maurice's anticipated attention, while their minds remain in a quandary to how much each woman might succumb to his French charms after being married. Will he prefer Julia or Jane? Is the desire to flame their own passions stronger then their passion for marriage? Their discussions spark a British row over their friendship. Julia and Jane question their comfortable status in society and remain bemused over the lack of fire after five years of supposed marital bliss. Are the two friends looking for "that hour of paradise" the love song speaks to?
Women absolutely steal the scenes in this MCT production from the first moments of Coward's script, throwing their tongue in cheek attitudes towards both bachelorette and married life. Three irrepressible actors give Julia, Jane and Saunders vibrant stage presence together with incredible vocals. Kay Allmand's stalwart Julia faces off with her best friend in Beth Mulkerron's more guileless Jane.
When the pair dines at home waiting for debonair Maurice, the handsome Matt Koester, to magically appear, the champagne served with their meal destroys their decorum and common sense. Each actor plays these woman with believable sincerity, a credit to Director C. Michael Wright and crucial to the play, where the characters' commitment to their friendship and their concern for their husbands shines through the women's ambivalent rivalry for a lover.
Molly Rhode inhabits the adorable maid Saunders, managing Julia's and Fred's affairs along with an evening's dinner through her upscale demeanor and musical affinity. In one scene, Rhode plays "Mêmes les Anges" while singing in French, and adds a few other tunes to create enchanting interludes in the comedy. Rhode's accomplishments on the baby grand, while the maid's cures for hangovers, allow this Saunders a sophistication that dissipates the discrepancy in social class. To whom does the real world belong to...the comfortable friends in tidy marriages or the experienced maid who often kicks up her heels dancing when dusting?
In an age when women rarely discussed marriage, much less lovers or sex (an event for procreation only), Coward places these topics front and center in his play to challenge what these significant social mores meant in the 20's. These subjects still resonate today. Topics Pope Francis only recently addressed in his newsworthy, worldwide speech. Were women even supposed to succumb to passion when married in the 1920's, much less before marriage---they certainly would have been considered fallen sinners instead of virtuous women in the stiff upper lip London society they were born and bred for.
Coward wrote well ahead of his time, and gave women permission to speak for themselves, what they desired of marriage, and perhaps love, those few moments of paradise before a compatible matrimony was required. Even today, a double standard for men and women still exists, although "we've come a long way, Baby," eons ahead of Coward's era. One line in his play speaks to how husbands "take their wives for granted," which might happen more frequently in contemporary marriages or relationships, now filled with two employers, two incomes, children and infinite social media, responsibilities and insatiable expectations. Where is love, passion and romance today, often taken for granted in modern society?
The two men, Fred and Willy, played by accomplished actors Rich Pendzich and Chase Stoeger, seem utterly clueless to what their wives might want, or deserve. While this seemingly frothy play produces plenty of uproarious fun, a hilarious romp in the second act, who dares disapprove of women wishing for a little more romance in their life? If the angels can fall to love, who are mere mortals to deny this small pleasure to anyone? Coward seems to suggest, or at least open for discussion, these unlikely premises if only to educate husbands, make them more aware and sensitive to their devoted wives. And in a 21st century decade when sex may be taken so casually personally or culturally, these subjects appear even more pertinent to revisit.
In an utterly charming evening's divertissement, succumb to MCT's ebullient and eloquent Fallen Angels, a surprising contemporary and fresh production gleaned from the inimitable Noël Coward. And then think about a time in one's life, past, present or perhaps future, when words of l'amour were as important in life as the work day is long. Those words the French love song ends with: "Give me you lips, your soul, you heart/ Because it's madly that I love you."
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Noel Coward's Fallen Angels through May 1 in the Cabot Theatre at the Historic Third Ward's Broadway Theatre Center. For information on special events, season tickets to the 2016-2017 season, or tickets to the current show, please call: 414.291.7800 or www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com