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StageStruck: Escape From Darkness

Two escapist comedies brighten stage and screen.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012
Johan Persson Photo
John Heffernan and servants in the National theatre's She Stoops to Conquer

In her vision of Private Lives, Emma Weinstein stacks nostalgia on top of nostalgia. Here, Noel Coward's 1930 comedy of romantic fisticuffs looks fondly back on a bygone era looking fondly back on a bygone era. And the audience is swept into Coward's effervescent masterpiece of theatrical make-believe without quite forgetting they're in a theater.

In the production playing at Smith College this weekend and next (smith.edu/smitharts, 413-585- 2787), patrons entering the theater are greeted by a bare stage, its cavernous depths stacked with flats from, well, bygone productions. Then the unmistakable soundtrack of Era Number One is heard: World War II popular songs and Winston Churchill announcing victory over Hitler. A group of actors gather onstage in joyful reunion. Turns out they performed Private Lives in this London theater in the carefree days before darkness descended on Europe. The sets and costumes are still there, so for old times' sake, they put it on again.

They wheel on set pieces that jigsaw together to form the adjoining terraces of a Riviera hotel, exchange their ration-era drabs for colorful attire from the costume rack, and dive into the misadventures of two couples whose newlywedded bliss is upended by the kind of inevitabilities that only farce can imagine. Briefly (deep breath), Elyot is married to Sybil and Amanda is married to Victor but Elyot and Amanda used to be married to each other and even though they broke up amid continuous brawling they still love each other and in Act Two it emerges that the continuous brawling is a big part of why they love each other.

When I dropped in on a rehearsal last week, Weinstein explained the thought behind her invented prologue: "I was thinking about how we use comedy to escape from the darkness. So I was looking at this frame of people coming out of extreme darkness—the war—and re-finding comedy in nostalgia for the past." Weinstein, a Smith junior, leads an all-student production team, including actors from Smith and UMass.

When they're not onstage, two of the performers maintain the theatrical convention by reciting the stage directions ("Elyot comes out. He is about 30, quite slim and pleasant-looking"). During scene changes, a piano stage right is dusted off to accompany songs by Coward and his witty contemporary Cole Porter.

Scene-changing music also features in the Royal National Theatre's revival of She Stoops to Conquer, another masterpiece of comedic engineering. It's the latest in the NT Live series of satellite-casts from the London stage to cinema screens worldwide, including the Amherst Cinema this Saturday (1 p.m., 413-253-2547, amherstcinema.org).

Oliver Goldsmith's classic 1773 comedy of mistaken identity, social pretensions and class snobbery is given a madcap staging that only occasionally goes too far over the top. The clockwork plot involves (quick breath) a young suitor who mistakes a manor house for a country inn, his blind date for the barmaid and her wealthy father for the innkeeper.

In this typically ornate production from the National, a troupe of rustic servants, who outnumber the leads (ah, the freedoms enjoyed by state-supported arts!) provides amusing musical interludes while the sets revolve, rise through the floor and descend from the flies (ah, etc.).

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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