Thursday, December 22, 2011

Treasure Private Island Lives


It's Christmas time which means, among other things, that it's a good time for light theater.  And this week I did my part.

Last Thursday I went to see the Lantern Theater Company production of Noel Coward's Private Lives.  Imagine my delight on discovering that somehow I'd never seen it before.  Private Lives is lighter than an air souffle.  A divorced man and women meet by accident on the first night of their second marriages.  Almost instantly their passion for each other rekindles and they run off together and resume the bickering that doomed their first go-around.  And, um... well, that's about it, really.  At the time Coward wrote it, there was a certain amount of substance to the contrast between two people who love each other for who they are and the jilted spouses who are in love with the roles they are presumed to fill because of their gender.  But nowadays, one full wave of feminism later, none of this comes as anything new.

What the play is, however, is very very funny.  And the actors were obviously having a great time. Ben Dibble has come in for a great deal of praise for his portrayal of Elyot, and I'll confess to being half in love with Geneviève Perrier's Amanda -- particularly the extraordinary expressiveness of her face, which is in constant motion and a silent comentary on the plot throughout.  But there isn't a flat performance in the show.  It's all fizz and champagne.

And today . . .

Today I went to the panto!

For most of my lives I wondered what the heck was with Christmas pantomimes.  The Brits always included them in reminiscences of the holidays of their childhoods, but never explained what they were.  It was assumed you knew.

Well, last year I finally went to one, at People's Light & Theatre in Malvern, PA, and it was such a hoot that I made it an annual tradition.

The panto is theater without pretensions.  It involves lots of music and puns and jokes, handfuls of candy flung out into the audience, broad acting, a young woman dressed up as a punk parrot, a large man wearing dresses gaudy enough to satisfy an entire company of cross-dressing mummers, star-crossed lovers, scurvy pirates, a happy ending, and what might conceivably pass as a plot if you squint at it just right.

Treasure Island, this year's production, was a hoot and a half. 

I wonder why it took so long for Americans to catch on to this?  I know that when I was a kid I would have loved it.

And did you know . . . ?

Noel Coward, incidentally, was a spy in WWII.  I am not making this up.  He was the Twentieth Century's own Scarlet Pimpernel.  “I was the perfect silly ass,” he said much later. “Nobody ... considered I had a sensible thought in my head, and they would say all kinds of things that I’d pass along.”  Among other things, he kept an eye on the Duke of Windsor whom he privately despised as a Nazi sympathizer.  After the war, it was discovered that he was on the German death-list of people to be immediately killed upon the conquest of Britain.

You can read an article about it here


JJM said...

You probably had seen a panto before, at least on television: Peter Pan. Barrie didn't intend it to be, but it had all the right ingredients, e.g. the broad comedy, actors dressed as animals, a fantasy plot, grandly flamboyant villains, a woman in the role of the principal boy (i.e. Peter). The original play started during panto "season", i.e. near Christmas, too. It lacked the Dame part (male actor dressed as a woman), that's the main difference.

Of course, Peter Pan, if you really read the play (and the novel based on it), is a deeply tragic figure ...


Michael Swanwick said...

Okay, that's just cool. And Peter comes up out of a hatchway, carrying a lantern at one point, I think, so that would take the place of the demon king.

I've got to reread the novel sometime soon. It's a very strange book.

Did you see the play's brief appearance in THE CHILDREN'S BOOK?

JJM said...

Might be that it's just been a long day, but The Children's Book just isn't ringing any bells, as a title by itself ... (Spending hours on end in the company of Little Old Ladies in their 80s and upwards serves wonderfully to dull the mind, sorry.)

Michael Swanwick said...

It's by A.S. Byatt. I'm presuming you've read her novel Possession, but if you haven't it is On Beyond Highly recommended. The Children's Book is not quite as good but it is excellent on such an extremely high level that it seems churlish to say so. Byatt is one of the best.

JJM said...

I most certainly have read Possession -- twice, even! -- and fell quite in love with it. That was during the period when I read almost no fiction at all, however, save for some YA/kidlit, 19th century novels, and some graphic novels. Possession qualified as an honourary 19th century novel with some odd snippets set in the future ... At any rate, I'm only now catching up on the fiction I've missed in the process, and have added Children's Book to the list, thanks for the heads-up! --Mario