“slattern, slattern, slattern, FISHWIFE!”

January 21, 2010

So … I mentioned in my last that I spent the weekend in Chicago for the purpose of seeing Tracy Michelle Arnold in Private Lives.  The experience really needs its own post to do it justice.  I thought the production was brilliant for any number of reasons and I’m really tempted to go back down to Chicago and see it again before it ends the run. I’m not even sure where to begin with its greatness:

The Play Itself:

I didn’t really know much about Noel Coward before seeing this play.  I know that the movie Easy Virtue which came out recently was based on his play by the same title but understand that some changes had been made during the screenwriting process.  I’d also heard from my family that APT’s production of Hay Fever last summer was good but that the play had seemed pretty frivolous.  So I didn’t really know what to expect other than to hope I’d have a better understanding of the phrase “Coward-esque wit” when it was done.

In the event it turned out to be great.  Both really funny and a fascinating psychological picture of what marriage can mean in an age of divorce.  (This is as relevant today as it was in the ’30s.)  The premise, in twenty five words or less: Elyot and  Amanda meet for the first time since their divorce on adjoining hotel balconies where they are honeymooning … with their new spouses.   (Twenty four words!)  Then all hell breaks loose.  They have clearly each married (this second time around) a little fliply and their hearts don’t appear to be in the endeavor.  Elyot assures his much younger wife that he loves her very differently than he did Amanda – in a calm quiet and soothing way that doesn’t sound very appealing.  Amanda is already being weighted down by her new husband’s stolid English conventionality.  When they meet again they remember what love felt like the first time around – filled with fireworks both emotional and argumentative.  Its never really clear if they belong together and the play ends ambiguously but what’s clear from the get go is that the people they’ve married will certainly never work out.  Its emotionally complex and doesn’t try to answer its own questions.  I walked away from it thinking hard.

The Language:

I also laughed a lot.  The dialogue is fast paced and filled with puns, double entendre and snark. Amanda and Elyot are both really strong characters and bounce back and forth between love and vituperation like they’re attached to each end of a spring.  In the first act they decide that their first relationship failed because they allowed their bickering to go too far into full blown fights so they develop a safe word phrase and resolve to immediately cease talking for two minutes every time one of them calls it.  They actually stage this twice (well three times but the third time it doesn’t take) and its amazing to watch them be silent for two whole minutes and still keep all eyes riveted to the stage.  I also really enjoyed the English-ness of the language.  Its all words I know but sometimes the meanings have to be determined from context.  Particularly the insults that are flung, between Elyot and Amanda, between their spouses Sybil and Victor as they search them out, between Sybil and Amanda and between Elyot and Victor as they front off in the third act.  It was fascinating to see which words were just a little rude and which would really set people off.  For example as everyone is talking at once in the third act Elyot – who has been told condescendingly by Amanda “I believe I already asked you  never to speak to me again” looses his temper and expostulates with increasing volume “slattern, slattern, slattern … Fishwife!”  For some reason slattern is just a build up.  He yells “Fishwife” into a sudden silence with total conviction.  It must have made sense to him and maybe to the British audience that first viewed the play in the 30s but I had to extrapolate that it was horrible from the reactions of the cast.

The Acting:

Private Lives has a cast of five people – the divorced Amanda and Elyot and their two new spouses, Sybil and Victor, and the french maid who has about five lines.  The entire second act takes place between Elyot and Amanda who move around a circle with a 10 foot radius and few pieces of well chosen furniture and take you through a roller coaster ride from lovey-dovey compliments to rolling around on the chaise literally trying to wring each others necks.  Its quite a ride.  I already knew what a brilliant actress Tracy Michelle Arnold is from many seasons of great performances at American Player’s Theater.  The rest of the cast seemed equally good.  I was totally sucked into the mental state of the play and walked out wondering hard about how things were going to turn out for all four main characters after the curtain went down.  I speak metaphorically as, of course, there was no curtain due to the …

The Staging:

A couple of the reviews I read thought that the rotating stage was a cheesy gimmick but I actually found it fascinating.   Whoever designed the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s main stage had some serious game.  The last play I attended there had a thrust stage with a diving pool in it and all the actors spent most of their time up to their ankles in water.  This time they turned the space into a theater in the round by adding seats behind the proscenium  on the usual stage and setting all the action on a rotating platform in the thrust area of the theater.  It began turning ever so slowly a few minutes into the first act and made between one and a half and two full revolutions during the whole play.  The actors entered and excited down all the aisles – using different access points as their marks on the stage slowly moved around.  The blocking was done very nicely so that every part of the audience was always seeing a face and always getting a different perspective.  And at the first intermission when they switched out the balcony set for the one of Amanda’s flat they lowered half the stage down a full floor and revealed that it was a full cylindrical armature that was rotating both under the stage and above it.  Very cool indeed.  The Chicago Shakespeare Theater website has some (very small and obnoxiously accessed) images of the cast in action which give something of an idea of it here.

The Costumes:

And finally I can’t rave enough about how much I loved the costume design, particularly the four changes the Tracy Michelle Arnold wore as Amanda.  They were absolutely the epitome of 1930’s elegance and I actually got out my notebook  at intermission and made some sketches of one of them.  I might try something similar (but simpler) at home as part of my new found sew-my-own-clothes kick.  They were both beautiful in sum total and beautifully constructed with some really complex detailing.  Completely swoonworthy!

But don’t take my word for it (as Lavar Burton used to say) go see it yourself.  Or at least you can read other peoples reviews here, here and here.

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One Response to ““slattern, slattern, slattern, FISHWIFE!””

  1. denisedthornton Says:

    How I would love to see this play!


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