Review: Design for Living by Austin Shakespeare
by Christine El-Tawil
Kara Bliss greets you with song as you enter the Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center for Austin Shakespeare’s production of Design for Living by Noël Coward. Jason Connor accompanies her on the upright piano. Bliss’s soulful delivery of witty and fun compositions by Coward instantly transports you to the 1920’s. The puns and clever humor set the audience laughing even before the action began, particularly with references to “gay” behavior. In Coward’s time, “gay” usually meant “loose” or “sexually libertarian” rather than “homosexual,” but our 21st-century audience took the modern meaning. Director Ann Ciccolella’s interpretation of the progressive partnering within this free-thinking trio was exactly in line with that modern understanding.
Bliss and Connor perform before the show and at each of two intermissions in this three-hour production. They function as a cheerful and attractive chorus, for the songs allude to themes and social issues explored throughout the play. Their final offering is Coward’s “Marvelous Party,” an account of lovely drunken frivolity foreshadowing the happy ending.
Coward wrote the play in 1932 for his friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the three of them appeared in it in New York to great acclaim. London audiences didn’t get to see it until much later because the ménage-à-trois and sexual innuendo were judged inappropriate by British authorities.
Design for Living tells the story of three young aspiring artists struggling up from poverty. They’re firm friends who first met in bohemian Paris. At the opening, Helen Merino as Gilda the designer is in a terrible flutter, and we soon discover why. Living unmarried with one of her male friends, she has just spent the night with the other. The dilemmas of sentiment and coupling are the heart of the play; these spirits scorn convention but jealousies upset and bewilder them. The three protagonists portrayed this drama and comedy so powerfully and effortlessly that the audience found itself gasping one moment and then laughing in the same breath.
Michael Miller plays Otto the painter with a Teddy-bear affability, and Martin Burke as Leo the up-and-coming playwright is emphatic and cerebral. Marvelously articulate dialogue pops and snaps, and it's full of emotion. The trio of Merino, Miller and Burke deliver the most exuberant, mischievous and riveting ensemble work we've seen in many a day, all of it with perfect timing. Despite the speed of the exchanges and the posh accents, not one joke or pun was lost on the audience. The shifts between tense drama moments to absurdly lighthearted funny ones deeply engaged us.
Particularly memorable was the finale of Act II when Otto and Leo, both scorned by Gilda, reconcile by abandoning themselves to drink, swigging cognac from the bottle and then sherry. The physical comedy as the booze hits them is wildly funny, and the growing desperation of their shared plight surges to a fine and satisfying climax. This is probably one of the scenes that Coward later referred to when he commented, "Alfred had suggested a few stage directions which if followed faithfully, would undoubtedly have landed all three of us in gaol [jail]."
Costumes by Haydee Antunano, the set by Émilie Houssart and lighting by Jason Amato work in harmony, visually conveying themes and conflicts to complement the dialogue and acting. Gilda’s costume changes evoke her internal struggle and search for happiness. As she becomes sought after by high society for her interior design, even her leisure outfits seem to burden her. She goes from being barefoot in loose, flowing outfits, to a shiny robe and glittery slippers. The last scene shows her in a formal evening gown and full jewelry. All of that stuff that she accumulated only seemed to make her look unhappier than ever.
Michael Dalmon in the character of art dealer Ernest impressed with his ability to shift from being a lovable character in the beginning to a disappointed, angered and thoroughly conventional betrayed husband at the end. The audience is left feeling conflicted about him, and his Malvolian departure is the last climactic moment.
Kathy Lagaza has a vivid and highly comic role as Mrs. Hodge, the adamant, twice-married and narrowly moralistic housekeeper. One kept hoping for the treat of an additional appearance in Act II and sometimes one was rewarded.
Although written in 1932, Design for Living speaks volumes to the modern-day audience. Those attending on preview night were thoroughly entertained. Austin Shakespeare’s e-mail the following day quoted one of them: "For all of us who had to make our lives up as we went along...go...just go. You'll thank me later."
The contraceptive pill, shifts in society and the would-be sophistication of modern sexual mores deprive the script of some of its titillation, but the basic themes of affection, jealousy, striving and relationships could easily feature in a play written this year, eighty years later. This Design for Living is a mah-vel-ous party -- don’t miss it!
Co-drafted with Michael Meigs
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