Monday, May 25, 2009

Love or Cruelty: Design for Living

Last Monday my housemate Rachel and I received a pair of last minute tickets to the opening of “Design for Living” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I had gone to two of their fantastic productions so far, “Twelfth Night” (which I blogged about) and “Ion” (which I loved, but didn’t write about). So while I knew absolutely nothing about this play or Noel Coward, the playwright, I went in with very high expectations.

The first moments of “Design for Living” had me thinking that it was going to be a very different play than what it turned out to be. The play follows three young "bohemians" Otto, Leo, and Gilda in the 1930's. The play opens with the young woman, Gilda living with Otto, but uninterested in marriage and having just slept with Leo, the third side of the love triangle. In the first 30 minutes of the play, I made a very wrong assumption. After a huge, honest, and enormously painful fight, Otto deserts Gilda spectacularly angry. And I thought it was going to continue to be a play about evisceration; characters ripping each others hearts out of their chests for sport.

I thought the protagonists were going to engage in a three way precursor to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof." In that play, a married couple, George and Martha, spend a whole (progressively drunker and drunker) evening ripping out each others internal organs, again figuratively. Although maybe something like zombies would make me like that play better, some literal evisceration. Unlike George and Martha, the lovers in "Design for Living" are not trying to destroy each other. The vitriol at the end of the first act never returns. Instead of trying to rip each others hearts out, they spend the rest of the play (and years of their lives) trying to rip down societal constructs and rebuild their lives in their own image. So while they may hurt each other, its never out of hatred, or callousness, but out of an honest desire to make it all work.

Each of the three acts tries another pairing. We begin with Gilda and Otto as a couple, move to Gilda and Leo, and finally to Leo and Otto. Each couple is happy together, yet none of these pairs quite work. And in the final scene, Leo and Otto come to reclaim Gilda, and enter in the final combination, all three of them. The play ends on this suggestion, but there is no act of the play devoted to it. And I guess I was left to feel that meant the final combination, the three of them, would work. Because nothing before it has and what is present here, is love. I never doubted that all three loved each other, and that through that love they could find happiness.

I didn't know anything about Noel Coward or this play before I saw it, so I had to read the program and do a little internet research to find some back ground. Noel Coward was a British playwright, however the content of “Design for Living” is very progressive, so much so that Coward premiered “Design for Living” in New York, not in London, where it would not have made it past the British censors. Although in the 80 intervening years, I think this has reversed itself, with productions in London now more progressive than those in the states. But in the 30’s Coward was actually in danger of being arrested for the content of this play. Which is interesting, considering that “Design for Living” still feels progressive now. And possibly this is why I’m so interested in it. How have we come so far, and not very far at all? I’m sure there were some people in the audience shocked by the earnest depiction of homosexuality, and love and just sexuality in general. However, I would need to get my hands on the script itself to be able to tell how much of progressive nature of this production is text based, and how much is stage direction, and interpretation. I think that this production clearly did pushed the envelope in those regards much more than it would have 80 years ago.

As I've sort of mentioned, the play follows a three act structure. Each act takes place in a different city. We begin in Paris in Otto and Gilda's apartment, take up two years later in London in Leo and Gilda's home, and end another two years later in New York with Gilda and her husband. The structure is very clever. The repetition of the themes is beautiful, not repetitive. Each time I thought I knew what was coming next, but I was never quite correct. This mix of predictability and surprise makes the play always interesting. I struggle to write about this, without giving the entire plot away, which I've sort of done anyway.

As the play takes place in three different cities, there were actually three totally different sets, one for each act and apartment. This meant that the show has two intermissions for set changes, and they actually closed the curtain to do this, something I almost never see in professional theatre. The sets were so detailed and beautiful that the third set actually got a round of applause, again something I've never seen. The lead actress even got a round of applause at her entrance in a very spectacular third act evening gown. While this was opening night and the sets and costumes were spectacular, I think this applause was more about the audience being completely in love with and invested in the story.

While I haven't talked about the humor at all, this production was hysterically funny. I think Noel Coward is primarily famous for writing comedies, although I think this play is more a very, very funny drama. The dialogue is terribly witty, and the audience is expected to keep up, with frequent call backs and pay offs to previous jokes. The supporting cast did an excellent job with a number of characters including a brilliantly funny maid, who would have stolen the show if the leads were not so darn mesmerizing. The play also included the best drunken sequence I've ever seen onstage, and some wonderfully intoxicated acting. Acting drunk onstage often goes wrong or off base or overboard, but the two leading men accomplished this perfectly. This scene also culminated in a kiss between the two men that has been building for the whole first two hours of the play and the tension was built perfectly in the 20 minute drunken scene. This moment ends the second act and sets up a final act that I hardly wait 10 minutes to see.

By the end of the play I was profoundly relived that I had been so wrong about it in the beginning. There was nothing bitter or mean spirited about this play. Instead it became a joyful and funny exploration about the relationships between people and the nature of art, and love. As I talked about in my last blog entry, I love relationship driven plays. The characters love for each other is what keeps me interested. The play ends on a slightly ambiguous, but hopeful note, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Oh and because it was opening night and opening night was fancy we got to get all dressed up. We also got to got a complimentary drinks things at a nearby swanky bar. Between the free tickets and the free wine, I feel like a real theatre critic. Does this mean I have to start being mean? And critical?


The MoM said...

Consider being a theater critic and I mean it. I really enjoyed this blog entry. - MoM

Kate Z Stone said...

I agree with your mom! Your theatre blogs are insightful and well balanced, and make me interested in going to see the shows. Also, now I need to read this for STF!

grandpa jack said...

This is from Grandma Meg. I tried sending you a comment yesterday, but it didn't seem to work.
Any how, to paraphrase my thoughts from yesterday...
Your blog on King Lear took my breath away, it was so amazing. Your insights, knoweldge and skill in writing are truly awesome!!
Hope your talents are discoveres big time in the future