Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Present Laughter"

Present Laughter
Noël Coward

The Cast of Theatre Rhino's "Present Laughter"
Intriguing plot?  No, not much there.  New theatrical grounds explored?  No, why break what has already worked for the playwright?  Redeeming social value and food for thought?  Ha, are you kidding?  A rip-roaringly fun night of theatre?  Bingo! 

Noël Coward’s semi-autobiographical farce, Present Laughter -- ready to be produced just as the war broke out in Europe in 1939 and delayed until 1942 for its first staging – is nothing if it is not fun, fun, fun (as long as one is up for a night of high-society, theatre-world, silly shenanigans).  Cheating spouses who cheat anew with best friends (and get caught), young actors (of both sexes) who throw themselves at the feet (and crotch, if possible) of the stage’s current ‘big star,’ slaps on the face and pinches on the butt, chase scenes of screaming ninnies, and a rambling clairvoyant in sock feet – These are just some of the many, formulaic, but somehow still fresh elements of this classic, much-produced period play nearing its eightieth birthday.  Its playwright’s scripts tend to swing to the pink side of things from time to time; but in the current, fabulously acted and directed production of Theatre Rhinoceros, the pink is deep in color and shining with glitter as this Present Laughter accentuates gay in ways that Sir Noël would probably approve but never have done himself.

Noël Coward took his title from the Fool’s Song of Act 2, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night; and in its verse, much of the plot of Present Laughter (such as it is) can be found – hilarious discoveries of secrets, unexpected events and visitors, fixation on youth by those no longer so, and unsure futures where hilarity is the only sure outcome.

Present mirth hath present laughter.
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Garry Essendine is a middle-aged star of the English stage who is close to a nervous wreck about being on the other side of forty while continuing to act as if he is in his twenties.  His wild and wide popularity on stage supports an elaborately rich life-style both for himself and his close family of associates (his estranged wife but still best friend, Liz; his manager, Morris; and producer, Henry – not to mention personal secretary, Monica; butler Fred; and sometimes cook and housekeeper, Miss Erikson).  Their lives mirror the furiously popular 1930s big screens of Hollywood where the rich always dress in formal wear and diamonds (and in Essendine’s case, ever-changing, silk dressing gowns) while most of the Depression-era audience is worrying about how their next rent will be paid. 

Essendine is preparing for a major, African theatrical tour while welcoming to his apartment women half his age who somehow seem to lose their own apartment’s latch keys when they are out with him and need a place to hang their heads in repose.  His interests also swing to the side of young men -- even the seemingly half-mad, aspiring playwright, Roland Maule, who bursts into Essendine’s already chaotic life (where his two best friends are sharing the same woman’s bed, unbeknownst to the one of them married to her).  Essendine himself becomes the third leg of this love triangle, and fireworks explode as revelations of betrayals stacked on betrayals uncover themselves.  All the time, the star himself, who is never not on his own stage, bemoans with much over-acting, “My life is one of torment, and no one cares.”

John Fisher as Garry Essendine
Director John Fisher stars as Garry Essendine, bringing to the role seemingly a thousand different unique and outlandish body moves and facial expressions.  He has a great propensity for always looking at himself in some seen or unseen mirror, posing with pronounced smiles and kisses and touches to his self-adored face – all the time speaking as if on stage to anyone (or no one) who is in the room with him.  At times he stomps about like a spoiled child, maybe to be followed by suddenly collapsing onto the floor in a faked faint or by melting into a ball at the feet of his secretary as she tries to ignore his over-done antics.  His voice is affected in hilarious manners, including final consonants that linger for seconds or tones that waver and wiggle much to his (if no one else’s) delight.  What looks spontaneous has clearly been highly choreographed by the actor/director in what has to be a role John Fisher has long craved to play. 

The one miss in interpretation is when Mr. Fisher goes into sustained, pelvic spasms whenever the name of one Essendine’s past trysts with a cute boy is mentioned.  The frequency of the repeated epileptic gyrations of his entire being and the length of each in duration become less and less funny as the play progresses.

Kathryn Wood as Monica Reed & Tina D'Elia as Liz Essendine
While Garry Essendine/John Fisher is the big marquee star of the evening, he is by no means the only act to watch.  Indeed, to a person this is a fantastic cast of characters -- some full of inbred, self-import sophisticate; some, full of sexual hormones popping out of all pores; and some, just full of endearing quirk.  Kathryn Wood is the sometimes mothering, sometimes bossing, always loyal secretary to Essendine, Monica Reed, who does all she can to be the one adult in the room but finally has to give in to participating in wild chases, slamming doors, and sophomoric dramatics.  Essendine’s ex who is still legally married to him, Liz, is played by the handsomely attired, understanding but with some deliciously cynic edge, Tina D’Elia.  The younger females who seem conveniently to lose their apartment keys in order to land a night with the self-indulging star are the high-voiced, almost cartoonish Daphne who sticks to Essendine like fly paper (Adrienne Dolan) and the high-styled, oozing with confidence in her own attraction and import (and having relations in the end with each of three best friends), Joanna Lyppiat (Amanda Farbstein).

Adam Simpson and Carlos Barrera are somewhat like Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dum as Essendine’s manager, Morris, and his producer, Henry.  The latter is playing cuckold to the former’s clandestine affair with his friend’s wife (while he himself is of course having a fling on the side with a starlet), and both are about to be the cuckolds of their famed star and client.  The two actors come off as two peas of the same pod, and this gay-leaning production puts those peas into the same bed in the end.

The more outlandish (how can we get any more outlandish?) characters are responsible for many of the night’s biggest laughs.  Ryan Engstrom is the butler Fred who prances about with swish and speed and who plays a mean piano in the interludes, singing in cockney tones some of Noël Coward’s many original songs.  Adrienne Krug is an absolute hoot as the old housekeeper, who talks to the dead, trudges around in socks and slippers with a constant snarl while smoking a cigarette, and constantly listens for voices saying, “No, No, No ... Christmas Day.”  (Ms. Krug also appears as Daphne’s aging aunt, Lady Saltburn -- yet one more woman who fawns over and paws with lust the self-adoring Essendine.)

John Fisher as Essendine & Marvin Peterle Rocha as Roland Maule
But the cream of the coo-coo crop is Marvin Peterle Rocha as the stalking playwright-to-be who only wants to be near and preferably on top of or at the crotch of Garry Essendine.  The gay dimension of this character is off the Richter scale in ways not in the original play, but Mr. Rocha pulls it off with real skill.  His spastic mouth movements, sputtering words, and general clown-like awkwardness whenever he gets sexually excited around the big star are great comedic moments to behold -- and his sculpted, smooth body is pretty fine to watch, too, by many/most in the audience.

Somehow, John Fisher has not only starred in this Rhino feat of fun, but he has also found the capacity to direct this cast of ten through all sorts of frenzy, capers, and surprises without anyone ever missing a beat.  Much of the joy of the evening is seeing what will be the next elaborate evening wear to emerge through the door, with David Draper absolutely creating eye-popping gowns, hats, footwear, and suits for all those on stage. 

The Art Deco stage of cutout walls that form multi, in-and-out corners and notches is further enhanced by Scenic Designer Gilbert Johnson by furnishings, mirrors, and decorative touches of all sort that announce 1930s, upper-crust society.  Sean Keehan has ensured lighting and sound highlight the well-adorned scene, and Treacy Corrigan has done a particularly good job in coaching the English dialects of each actor.

The evening is a bit long at two-and-a-half hours for so much fluff without a lot of substance or story, but the universal excellence of character portrayal and the tongue-in-cheek direction make most of the minutes totally enjoyable.  Theatre Rhinoceros has truly outdone itself in this season’s bowing production, giving Noël Coward’s Present Laughter some new kink and kitsch while retaining all the high-styled silliness that audiences have loved for three quarters of a century.

Rating: 4 E

Present Laughter continues in its extended run through July 2 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

Photos by David Wilson

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