'Private Lives' to open at Dorset Theatre Festival

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DORSET — What can a 1930s era comedy of manners possibly have to tell an audience in the 21st century?

Well, if you stop long enough at Dorset Theatre Festival to see the opening show of the 2019 summer season, Noel Coward's "Private Lives," quite a bit, it turns out, along with a healthy dose of laughter — something anyone can use.

Artistic director Dina Janis said that classics such as this play by Coward, to be directed by the award-winning Evan Yionoulis, remain staples in the theatre world for so long because of their "uncanny ability to reach across generations."

"We believe that 'the play's the thing' here at Dorset," Janis said. "This is one of the most fabulous plays of all times, full of wit, great fun for actors and designers, sophisticated and funny. Coward captures the universal humor that sometimes ensues once we lose our minds by falling in love. Let's be honest. That never gets old!"

Point well taken. Passion, laughter, romance, anger, and love are the premise for a battle of the sexes as divorced couple, Amanda Prynne (Rachel Pickup) and Elyot (Shawn Fagan), find themselves accidentally flung together.

Unknowingly booking adjoining rooms while on honeymoon with their respective spouses, Victor Prynne (Hudson Oznowicz) and Sybil Chase (Anna Crivelli), Amanda and Elyot are forced to face their true feelings for each other. Louise (Dee Pelletier), the French-speaking maid, also joins the romp

Janis said to pull off the intricate and dialogue-rich play "a very talented cast and crew" had to be assembled for a task "requiring great skill."

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Leading that effort is Yionoulis, who delighted DTF audiences a few seasons ago when taking the reins of Alan Ayckbourn's "Table Manners," another comedy in a similar mold to those of Coward's, even though set in in the 1970s.

"Actors must have comedic ability and be able to work well with sophisticated and witty language," Janis said. "Designers are asked to create a period which was unique, and frankly, gorgeous. We've been so fortunate in finding the perfect director in Evan Yionoulis, a master at the craft. Watching her guide her actors and creative team through the process of bringing this play to life has been a joy."

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Yionoulis smiled when told of that assessment, and said that taking on "Private Lives" was a chance to laugh but still address relatable, real life subject matters..

"Amanda and Elyot, the central characters, certainly prefer flippancy and wit to more direct forms of communication, but their passion for (and against) each other is completely recognizable to anyone then or now who has been in love for any length of time," Yionoulis said. "As is the disappointment of their jilted spouses, who cling to propriety, and social and gender norms, as a salve to their wounds."

By taking the play and the characters absolutely seriously, Yionoulis continued, all the humor seems real to life, "along with the romance and the vitriol, in a way that feels fresh, fun, and true almost a century later."

Yet even a great script and talented actors can be in an environment that will propel challenges in their midst. In this case, according to Janis, some logistics were involved to help bring the play into the aesthetic forefront as Coward might have intended.

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"Making the Deco Period come to life on our budget was no doubt a huge challenge," Janis said, referring to the ornate and visually rich set and technical design of 1930s English and France. "We've tackled that with great creativity and a good dose of borrowing from our friends. Clothes must be fabulous, scenic elements stunning, and everyone must be lit to perfection."

And working feverishly to that end are the production/technical team of Lee Savage (scenic design), Katherine Roth (costume design), Donald Holder (lighting designer), Jane Shaw (lighting designer), B.H. Barry (fight director), Patricia Norcia (dialect coach), Chandalae Nyswonger (stage manager) and Ashley Houck (assistant lighting designer).

In all, Janis said that the start of summer is one that "invites laughter to brighten the day," and hopes that audiences embrace the opportunity with Coward's comedy of manners in full bloom.

"I hope the folks in the seats will find the experience of this play like sipping an excellent glass of champagne," Janis said. "Bubbly, elegant, a bit giddy and smiling."

"Private Lives" by Noel Coward and directed by Evan Yionoulis will run between June 20 and July 6 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset. Info and tickets: 802-867-2223, ext. 101, or dorsettheatrefestival.org

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @Telly Halkias


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