Private Lives

High Society—Champagne + Cigarettes Photo by Louise Lyshøj on Unsplash

Dinner and a show last night—Our dinner was at Salt + Smoke, a BBQ joint in the Loop that was packed with WashU students, making me feel old by comparison. The show was Noël Coward’s Private Lives, which was performed at COCA (Center of Creative Arts), a smaller, more intimate venue than the Rep’s usual forum, the Loretto-Hilton Theater. The demographics of the Rep’s audience was such that I now felt young by comparison.

Coward’s 1930s Private Lives stars four roles. The leads are characters Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, who were divorced and then meet again, on the adjoining balconies of their adjacent suites, for the first time since their bitter divorce, on the first night of their respective honeymoons, with their new spouses. Awkward! Elyot has married Sibyl Chase, a younger and somewhat flighty woman. While Amanda is now hitched to Victor Prynne, a rather dour and humorless man. Amanda and Elyot are the first to realize their new predicament and without telling them why, implore their respective amours to immediately flee to Paris from the Riviera resort that they have all only just arrived at, but to no avail. Faced with the seemingly unreasonable demands of their new spouses, separately both Sibyl and Victor leave the scene. This leaves Elyot and Amanda alone, first to squabble, then to commiserate, reminisce and eventually reconcile. Realizing that they are both still in love and realizing that neither of their new spouses know anything about these recent events, they both decide to sneak out together and flee to Paris, end Act One.

After intermission, Act Two opens in Amanda’s Paris flat, where we find Elyot and Amanda romancing together in bedroom attire. Elyot and Amanda invent the safety phrase “Solomon Isaacs”, to stop their arguments from getting out of hand. They kiss passionately, but the harmony cannot last, while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, neither can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. Their ongoing argument escalates to a point of fury, as Amanda breaks a record over Elyot’s head, and he retaliates by slapping her face. They seem to be trapped in a repeating cycle of love and hate as their private passions and jealousies consume them. At the end of the second act and the height of their biggest fight, Sibyl and Victor walk in.

In the Thirties the second act was frequently deemed too sexual and was often censored. By today’s standards the scene seemed rather tame, but there was still enough going on to adequately suggest otherwise. It also begged the question, did the Rep have to put on this production at COCA, because the Rep’s regular landladys, the Sisters of Loretto, still found it to be too unseemly?

I will not spoil the play’s ending, except to say that Coward has found a more satisfying way to end this play, than the only logical conclusion to Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship, one of them killing the other. A valid criticism of Private Lives is that Coward has found a way to make domestic violence funny.

Author Noël Coward as Elyot Chase and Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Prynne in a 1930 stage production of Coward’s Private Lives

Coward wrote Private Lives feverishly in four days, while he was recuperating in China. He planned on performing the part of Elyot and reached out by cable to Gertrude Lawrence to play the part of Amanda. He sent her the script, to which she wired back, “nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed.” Coward wired back curtly that the only thing that needed to be fixed was her performance. An echo of their character’s on-stage tension, but also a misunderstanding. Lawrence was referring to a scheduling issue that she had. By the time Coward had returned to London, she had cleared her schedule.

House of Joy

Taj Mahal by Julian Yu on Unsplash

Last night, Anne and I began this year’s fall theater season, with dinner and a show. We went to see the Rep’s House of Joy. Before the show, we had dinner at Cyrano’s, which has had a long and checkered tenure throughout our residence in Saint Louis. In our first year living here, while we were away on our honeymoon, it moved into where our favorite pizzeria had been, after its building had burnt. Then in the nineties there was that infamous “extra whip cream” incident. We’ll say no more about that here. Ever since then, Cyrano’s has remained in the regular rotation of dining establishments prefacing the Rep. Our visitations there, like with a lot of other things, kind of fell of the map, because of the pandemic. So, last night I was surprised to learn that Cyrano’s is now owned by Sugarfire, my favorite go to spot for BBQ.

Not to worry though, because Cyrano’s still features their signature ice cream desserts (with extra whip cream), as demonstrated nicely when a nearby family of three ordered the flambee for two. Prepared tableside, as her parents watched on, the little girl was enraptured by the spectacle, although the flames did startle her, but her eyes remained steadfast in happy anticipation. By the time that the dessert was finally served, she had the full attention of the entire restaurant.

Joy has a ghost story, a love story, political intrigue, fantasy, bawdy jokes, fight sequences and an assassination. This play is set in some unnamed emperor’s harem, during the 300-year rule of the Mughal Empire of what is now India. The Mughal’s are famous for the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world and also a tomb for some dead emperor’s favorite wife. I had the good fortune to visit this place, when I was about the age of the little girl from Cyrano’s, in the fifties. It was an experience that was also enrapturing.

The play opens with a street urchin, who had recently beaten a man to death. She’s approached by the steward of the house, about becoming a harem guard, an all-female cloister where the empire’s royal women live. She agrees and discovers that this magical house will let women enter but not leave and won’t let men enter at all, except the emperor, who we never see. The only other person who is free to come and go as they wish is the steward, who is “both boy and girl”. Aside from the steward and the house, which is a character unto itself, the rest of the cast are all women.

To cover the gambit of outlined stories, the play regularly veers from one direction to another, leading to a convoluted plot. Also, our seating was quite different than normal, adding to the weirdness of the experience. We were in the second row, center. Where we normally sit, rows back, was closed off to seating. Still, the house last night was so small that not even half of the available seats were filled. Sitting where we were the action occurred all around us and often felt up close and personal. All-in-all the play was an unusual experience and we have been going to the Rep for over thirty years. So, that is saying something. What? I am still coming to grips with that.

Carmen

Betalo Rubino, Dramatic Dancer, Robert Henri, 1916

Toreador!
Don’t spit on the floor
Use the cuspidor
That’s what it’s a-fore

We went to see Opera Theater’s production of Carmen, which is performed in English, with captioning. Using both the English translation and subtitles made understanding this show’s performance so much easier. This productions was set in Franco’s Spain, rather than Bizet’s 19th-century original setting. I don’t think that this change of period either added or subtracted much from the opera’s story, but it definitely made the dresser’s job easier.

Carmen is easily Anne’s favorite opera and I enjoy it too. Kathy loved the show and Frank found it better than he expected. High praise from him. As always, Bizet’s music is to die for and I think that Carmen’s story has taken on new significance with the advent of the #MeToo movement. Carmen uses her sexuality as a tool, to get what she wants, but I think that she actually cares for Don José, at least for awhile. She is neither predator nor victim, but rather living her life as she sees fit. She does not deserve her fate, but neither does she shy away from it either. In a sense then, she is a modern woman, both strong and self-reliant and determined to make her own way in this world. 

Ghosts, Spirits and a Full Moon

Yesterday’s Full Moon
Blithe Spirit Poster

Yesterday, it rained most of the day, but we still got out. We went to the Maplewood-Richmond Heights high school and saw their production of Blithe Spirit. After the play, exiting the school’s auditorium, I saw the full moon shining through the remaining clouds. This Noël Coward play first debuted in London during 1941 and has since been made into several movies that are available for streaming. It is a comedy about death and ghosts that debuted during the horrors of the Blitz. The play is set at the English country home of a gentlemen author, Charles, who is researching his next book on the occult. He and his wife Ruth have invited over another couple and the French occultist Monsieur Arcati for a séance. The result of this ceremony is the accidental recalling from the spirit world of the ghost of Charles’s first wife, Elvira. Only Charles (and the audience) can see or hear Elvira, but she can make her presence known to the rest of the cast by “levitating” objects. Needless to say, Ruth is not amused by the presences of her predecessor and much comedy and conflict ensues. I was amazed at the production values in this high school play and we both highly enjoyed the show.

Ghosts Poster

Before Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, while he was searching for a play’s idea involving ghosts, his first thoughts centered on an old house, haunted by specters from different centuries, with the comedy arising from their conflicting attitudes, but he could not get the plot to work. Because the evening’s play began at seven, we got home before ten. It was too early for bed; besides I was still to wound up from the theater. On YouTube, I began watching trailers from the different movie treatments of the play that have been shot over the years. Losing my soul once more to YouTube, I kept drilling down until I found a trailer for the BBC production of the comedy series Ghosts (HBO) that is based upon a young couple who inherits an old house, haunted by specters from different centuries.

Like with the hit comedy series The Office, this British original now has an American transplant that began on CBS but has since been picked up for streaming (Hulu). When the young couple first arrive at the mansion the ghosts are curious, until they learn that the couple’s plans include turning their home into a hotel. With their eternal peace endangered, the ghosts declare war on the couple and one of their number pushes the woman out of an upstairs window. She survives, but this near-death experience then allows her to both see and hear the ghosts. We’ve binged most of the first season and seen the relationship between the living and the dead evolve from “gorilla” warfare to an unsteady truce. This is exemplified in the episode where in order to raise some much-needed cash, the young couple rents out the mansion to a movie company that is filming a period drama. Let’s just say that the ghosts go full Hollywood.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

We went to the theater last night. The house was packed, no social distancing to be found, although everyone was masked and vaxxed. Omicron be damned. Before the show, I had been skeptical about the night’s performance, A Christmas Carol, an old saw that I have already seen way too many of times and in so many different ways, but I left pleasantly surprised by the night’s spectacle. Spiced up with a light show, music and dance and sky-high production values, it made for an enjoyable evening.

This 19th-century Dickensian tale is credited with codifying what we now take for the modern holiday of Christmas. Born in Victorian times where many of our current Christmas traditions were invented. Traditions such as the decorating of evergreens, mistletoe, the exchanging of gifts and the singing of holiday specific songs. Wednesday night, we attended the Garden Glow holiday lights show. As part of that show, we toured Henry Shaw’s country home. As an aside, I learned during this tour that after his death, Shaw’s city home had been moved to the garden’s ground and reassembled nearby his country home. It is now an office building. The country home was built in 1840 and for the show its interior was festooned with authentic Victorian era Christmas decorations. The play’s physical sets were pretty minimalistic, relying more upon the accompanying light show than much furniture. I think that is was my recent memory of Shaw’s house that helped to dress out the play’s sets.

Ghost of Jacob Marley