JOHN FISHER’S TAKE ON NOEL COWARD'S GIVES HIS WORK THE PERFECT EDGE WITH A SCREWBALL HILARIOUS WILD RIDE.
A young playwright admirer says to an aging actor “every play you appear in is exactly the same superficial frivolous without the slightest intellectual significance -- you have a great following and all you do is prostitute yourself every night of your life”. Noel Coward's lines from PRESENT LAUGHTER, the semiautobiographical zany romp. Coward was the best at the fast moving biting satire. This classic sitcom lives in the moment and is now on stage at Theatre Rhinoceros Eureka stage through June 12th. The marvelous John Fisher directs, and appears as the flamboyant Garry Essendine who is a successful actor. After recently turning 40 is he still testing his oats. Once again Fisher is a tour de force of energy and takes this version of story were the original would not dare to go. It is more than a wild ride of British humor and homo-funny tongue and cheek that Coward always has in his scripts but never staged that way until brilliant Mr. Fisher opened the closet.
Present Laughter is a dizzy 1930s, '40s, sitcom and doors slamming, two hour and thirty minute romp that has some of the best shtick I have seen at the Rhino. Fisher brings a very energetic cast of ten actors to stage this World War II era farce that will make you giggle with laughter from the first scene to the slapstick ending. The year is 1938 the setting is the London studio apartment of the aging debonair English stage idol, Garry Essendine. The time period is several days prior to Garry's trip to Africa to perform a repertory season. Despite being an ego neurotic, Garry is a likable funny and genial man who is over the top with maintaining his image as an irresistible bachelor.
A crisis develops in his loyal inner circle that could damage Garry's career and reputation. His entourage of crazed characters includes his not quite ex-wife Liz Essendine, played by the strong Tina D’Elia who left his party years ago, but remains his loyal adviser and confidante. Monica Reed, his sarcastic, steadfast secretary played by the very talented Kathryn Wood, has the perfect comic timing with Fisher. Carlos Barrera is foolproof as Garry’s producer Henry Lyppiatt who crashes and spins through most of the story. Local favorite and dapper Adam Simpson plays his concerned manager Morris Dixon. Henry has been married to Joanna, who is not part of the inner circle, for five years. The slap stick emerges when it is understood that Joanna is having an affair with Morris who is completely head over heels with her.
The high jinks continues when Garry is charmed with Daphne, a twenty one year old society seeker who got him to allow her to stay overnight by claiming that she lost her latchkey. Daphne, played by the sweet enduring Adrienne Dolan, doesn't understand that his romantic approach was not intended for anything more other than an evening of shenanigans. His apartment is also invaded by Roland Maule, who plays by a delirious neurotic, overly zealous young playwright, who pines for Garry, yet calls him a fair weather writer. Neither the girl and the other needy players will prove easy to get rid of. Joanna, his ambitious secretary played by the excellent Amanda Farbstein who never takes “no” from her boss and covers for his overnight guests. The highlight of the entourage is Fred his insolent butler, played by the clever Ryan Engstrom, who also delights the audience with some classic piano to set the tone of the madcap two and a half hours.
The adorable Adrienne Krug plays the amusing housekeeper Miss Erikson who constantly dusts the furniture while chain smoking. Krug has the classic comic timing and Fisher is maniacal at designing the madness around the three downstairs characters. Coward's sitcom flair is marvelous in this unhinged tour de force. Fisher wears the mad hat of Garry Essendine with a charming sense of ridiculous and self awareness. D’ Elia portrays Liz Essendine with charm and sophistication to spare. Farbstein is so formidably strong and seductive as Joanna that she appears touched. The performances are high end throughout the splendid ensemble. Doland as Daphne is a silly and likeable foil for Garry's mixed up heart. Simpson as Morris and Barrera as Henry are both entertaining as they engage Garry as his manager and producer;both after the same women.
The elegant Adrienne Krug returns in the second act to round out the cast with her solid stern Lady Saltburn. Scenic designer, Gilbert Johnson's, set is stylish in all sky blue with gold and silver lined art deco studio room that features a few doors to keep the cast coming and going and rooms to hide. A large entrance alcove with a big window and additional rooms are elegant. David Draper's beautiful, evocative costumes enhance the madness. His furs set the mood, and his elegant slim gowns for Joanna and Daphine amplify the romp right on down to Liz Essendine's smart pillbox hat. Sean Keehan's sound and lighting design captured the tone of the comedy and his bright warm lighting brings the best out of the cast. Fisher’s production makes it clear that there is more weight to this semi-autobiographical play than its reputation would credit as he takes it to the subtext level it was meant to be.
The splashy Ryan Engstrom opens the evening with some of Noel Coward's classic songs and he has a beaming voice as he continues the charm with scene changes. Fisher streamlines the three act play to just two acts, and keeps his cast moving, jumping, tumbling over each other and rolling on the carpets. The evening is full of Coward's classic zingers “To begin with your play is not a play at all. It's a meaningless jumble of adolescent, pseudo intellectual poppycock.” I do agree, but PRESENT LAUGHTER is one of his best screwball hilarious works. It is a joyous ode to the theatre. Despite the changes over the years in taste in comedy and morality - The 2016 Rhino theatre version ends with two male characters walking off hand in hand - the way it was meant to be.
Theatre Rhinoceros Presents
Directed by John Fisher
Through June 11th
215 Jackson St., (at Battery St.) SF, CA 94111
With: Carlos Barrera as Henry, Adam Simpson as Morris, Tina D'Elia as Liz, Kathryn Wood as Monica, Marvin Peterle Rocha as Roland, Ryan Engstrom as Fred, John Fisher as Garry, Adrienne Krug as Lady Saltburn, and Adrienne Dolan as Daphne
Tickets at www.TheRhino.org
Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/Theatre-Rhinoceros
Photos by David Wilson.