BWW Review: PRIVATE LIVES at Dorset Theatre Festival is Pretty Much Pitch Perfect
Dorset Theatre Festival opened its 42nd season with raucous, jagged sophistication last week when five actors took the stage to inhabit the world of Private Lives, Noël Coward's beloved comedy of manners. DTF alum, Evan Yionoulis has deftly directed her talented ensemble and design team to unearth and lay bare all of Coward's wit and wordplay with ferocious integrity that feels fresh and timeless, despite the nine decades that have elapsed since the play's first curtain.
The play opens as Elyot (Shawn Fagan) and Sybil (Anna Crivelli) settle into their balcony honeymoon suite somewhere in France. Crivelli's exuberant enthusiasm is thrown into sharp relief by Fagan's cool and elegant ambivalence, immediately cluing us into both an age- and experience-gap between the newlyweds. As it turns out, this is not Elyot's first honeymoon. Both his reticence to disparage his ex in order to assuage his new wife and his inability to muster anything approaching an equivalent enthusiasm spells trouble ahead for this nascent marriage.
Echoing the symmetry of set designer Lee Savage's sumptuous balcony scene, Amanda (Rachel Pickup) and Victor (Hudson Oz) soon enter stage right and a similar scenario plays out as it becomes clear that Amanda is the very ex on whom Sybil has been perseverating. Victor, though striving to convey confidence and certitude, is clearly out of his depth in a marriage with the formidable and ferocious Amanda.
What follows is a tight, well-paced, and delightful two hours of theater that traverses the triumphs and pitfalls of love and passion, as the characters attempt to find their bearings as they veer wildly off course and all bets are off.
From the outset, Fagan and Pickup prove to be brilliantly paired as the long-separated lovers. Fagan's ability to undermine or emphasize Elyot's words with physical or gestural subtext is subtle yet masterful--a joy to watch; Pickup uses silence to expertly sharpen the point on her own linguistic knife, cutting down any character who stands in the way of her own perceived path to happiness.
"I've Sometimes Thought Of Marrying - And Then I've Thought Again."
"It's such a cliche to say this, but the play is so strong -- so greatly written with a structure so perfect -- that it tells you where to go. You have to give into that completely," Pickup said in a Connecticut Post interview when she played Amanda at Hartford Stage in 2015. "Of course, you have to mean what you say, especially in a comedy, or you're just asking for laughs."
This perhaps is part of what sets Dorset's production of Private Lives apart from countless others. Evident onstage was a commitment to truth and honesty, to discovering what really drives these characters to traffic in the folly of these mixed-up love affairs with such passion and conviction. Yionoulis holds fast to this vision of Coward's play as being relatable and human in addition to being a tremendously engaging entertainment and, by so doing, creates a satisfying evening at the theater that doesn't pander for laughs, although there are plenty to be had.
This stage magic does not happen without the concerted efforts of the entire team. From the stunning period costuming by Katherine Roth and ambient sound design by Jane Shaw to the evocative lighting design by Donald Holder, all design elements coalesced to help tell the story. In the lighting and sound design in particular, there was a notable parallel journey that included conscientious crescendo and decrescendo as the story wound up to its climax and spiraled down to its joltingly chaotic end.
I noted Shaw's thoughtful sound design details like the ebb and flow of the seashore soundscape that peaked at a pivotal plot point in the first act and the ubiquitous ticking of a clock in an extended silence in the second. Holder's lighting, inversely, grew more intense throughout the combined second and third acts, then subtly began to dim as the play approached it denouement. These accomplished designers breathed life into the world inhabited by these characters and made this production greater than the sum of its most excellent parts.
"Private Lives," by Noël Coward at Dorset Theatre Festival plays June 20 - July 6 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT 05251 $48-$58. For tickets or information, call 802-867-2223, or go online to dorsettheatrefestival.org.