AISLE SAY San Francisco


By Noël Coward
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Mark Rucker
Bruns Memorial Amphitheater
100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda, CA / (510) 548-9666

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Couples who love each other passionately but who fight just as passionately have a long theatrical tradition. Shakespeare gave us his best example with Beatrice and Benedick, while Kate and Petruchio weren't far behind -- until he supposedly tamed her, and even then we can't be sure that he did. Radio gave us the Bickersons in the mid-'40s. And Noël Coward gave us Amanda and Elyot in the '30s.

We meet them in California Shakespeare Theater's sparkling presentation of "Private Lives," adroitly directed by Mark Rucker. Played by Stephen Barker Turner and Diana Lamar, Elyot and Amanda have married new spouses five years after divorce ended their rancorous marriage. By coincidence, the two honeymooning couples have gone to the same hotel, where Elyot and Amanda encounter each other on their adjoining balconies. It seems both have traded the tumult of their relationship for calmer, more sedate marriages to younger people -- he to Sibyl (Sarah Nealis) and she to Victor (Jud Williford). It doesn't take long for them to realize the spark of love still burns bright, so they run off together to Paris that very night. Despite their best efforts to control their tempers, though, it also doesn't take long for them to launch into full battle mode -- albeit punctuated by romantic interludes.

The four actors easily navigate Coward's witty script. Turner and Lamar make Elyot and Amanda's sharp mood swings both believable and humorous -- all loving one minute and fiercely fighting the next. Nealis and Williford capture the love they feel for their characters' mates and their frustration at realizing they'll never measure up. The cast is completed by Liam Vincent as the French-speaking servant, Louis.

The actors seemed undaunted by the weather on opening night, when rain fell for about 20 minutes at the start of Act 1 and a gorgeous double rainbow competed with them and Katherine Roth's elegant costumes for the audience's attention. Nor did they appear more than momentarily startled in Act 3, when a gust of wind blew open a section of the set (designed by Annie Smart with lighting by Scott Zielinski) serving as the door to the Paris apartment. Jeff Mockus' sound design included music from the time, including a recording of Coward himself singing "Someday I'll Find You," a song that has romantic meaning for Elyot and Amanda.

Despite the natural elements, all of the theatrical elements add up to a most enjoyable evening of theater.

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