‘Private Lives’ at Vagabond Players by Amanda Gunther

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is. Particularly when one is on one’s honeymoon. Their second honeymoon with their second husband. Especially when one’s first husband is on his honeymoon with his second wife. In the adjoining balcony suite of the exact same hotel. The only thing that could make such a comedy better were if the tempestuous divorcée and her ex suddenly sparked a passionate romance and ran away together leaving their newlywed spouses behind without notice. And that is exactly what is unfolding upon the Vagabond Players’ stage as their close out their 97th season with the uproariously witty Noel Coward classic, Private Lives. Directed by Sherrionne Brown, this roaring good intellectual romp keeps the audience in stitches from beginning to end with its vivacious characters, intriguing comic plot twists, and overall superior performances given by a spectacular cast.

Amanda (Ann Turiano) and Elyot (Michael P. Sullivan). Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.
Amanda (Ann Turiano) and Elyot (Michael P. Sullivan). Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.

The posh clothes are all the rage in this fanciful production, Costume Designer James J. Fasching crafting spectacularly fashionable looks that define each of the characters in this 1930’s Parisian comedy. Elegance with a splash of naïveté is thrown into the more subtle dresses saved for the starry-eyed Sibyl while Fasching pays homage to the golden age of Hollywood with the dresses and silky unmentionables he saves for Amanda. And the gentlemen clean up equally as well in their crisp black and white suits, Elyot in particular in his rather dashing silk dressing robe. Fasching’s bold choice to set Amanda in a saucy towel for the opening balcony scene adds a level of scandalous grace to her blasé sophistication.

Set Designer Roy Hammond, working with Director Sherrionne Brown, transport this production to the classy south of France for the opening scene on the iconic balcony. With a rustic charm in the sprawling terrace, complete with ivy dotted along the walls, Hammond works magic into the details of the scenic art. What’s even more amazing is the transformation from the quaint and romantic balcony to Amanda’s lavishly furnished Parisian flat. The subdued blue wall tone mingles with the mood both romantic and chaotic making it the perfect set for the rest of the production.

Director Sherrionne Brown crafts a masterpiece with Coward’s rapier wit and indulgent dramatic elements. Her attention to character relations makes this production sheer perfection, having hand selected the perfect quartet of actors for these four hilarious roles. Brown’s bold and innovative choice to cast a much younger actor in the role of Amanda suited the production so well that it might inspire future productions to do so. Doing so not only gave Amanda’s character an eternal youth, like that of the Hollywood golden girl era, but it made her wild and racy ways extremely natural; a superb choice that made the production that much more of a smashing success.

Working together to accomplish Coward’s highly stylized highbrow comedy is no small feat and these four actors succeed with zest, keeping the play alive with a vigorous dose of well-received comedy. Everyone has a fantastic handle on how to sound upper-class English, the accents never wavering for even an instant, and only growing in their strength when emotional eruptions occur. Stephy Miller, playing the brief cameo of Louise the maid, should be commended for her flawless fit into this show. With her snippy attitude and masterful French accent you’d think they had her imported directly from Paris.

The production’s focal point can always be drawn back to love. Whether its loving the one you’re with or being with the one you love, it’s all abound in many forms and that naturally is where the play begins. Sibyl (Rachel Holmes) is the epitome of a gooey-eyed doe, fawning over her newlywed husband Elyot. Holmes brings the perfect balance to her character’s existence, hopping from enthusiastically enamored to horrifically shocked as the pair begin to quarrel. The gushy chemistry that flows between the pair is saccharine nearly to the point of nauseating making her character that much funnier to behold as the situation unfolds upon her. Holmes’ eyes are particularly expressive, always wide in a state of innocent shock, so much so that when she blinks or bats her eyelashes you practically expect cutesy sound effects to follow. Though much like the rest of the characters in this production, Holmes’ is no saint for by the end of it all she’s fallen into a fiery shouting match producing such a racket that one would never think possible from such a sweet and elegant young slip of a girl. Her simpering whining is enough to drive anyone mad, but fits the character divinely making for a thoroughly well rounded performance.

Prim proper and polished are the polite words for a reserved gentleman such as Victor (Darren McDonnell). Equally smitten with his newlywed wife, Amanda, he is the glowing example of a proper Englishman in all his precisely executed diction and general mannerisms. McDonnell’s accent sounds crisp with a hint of aristocracy as aromatic as fine wine. But the real jewel crusted into his performance comes during Act III when all hell breaks loose. With an extremely vehement streak blustering up from inside of him, McDonnell lives up to his character’s accusations of being little more than a rampaging gasbag. His fussing and fuming erupts into the ultimate series of physical and vocal histrionics that leave the audience roaring with laughter. A sharp and sensational performance for the supporting male role in this production.

And then there’s Elyot (Michael P. Sullivan). It’s no wonder all the ladies keep falling for him, he’s simply dashing, charming, charismatic, and downright captivating, you’ll scarcely want to take your eyes off him. Sullivan lives the role of a lifetime as the posh Elyot Chase, his tongue zinging and zipping over Coward’s perfectly placed lines of comedy. Sullivan’s cheeky approach to Elyot makes him thoroughly enjoyable, using his forked tongue to deliver compliments and insults all in one go. His facial expressions are priceless; highly emotive especially during peak moments of exasperation and brutal anger. His temper flares just as high as Amanda’s (Ann Turiano) and his levels of exasperation knows no bounds.

The volatile tempestuous chemistry that stirs between Sullivan and Turiano is smashing. One moment they can’t stop hanging all over each other, with such a close physical intimacy that you can hardly believe they ever hated one another, to the next practically killing each other. The pair play perfection against one another, be it in love or in loathe; their barbs and bites as sharp and venomous as their love is deep and sweet. Sullivan and Turiano do the play a great justice in their highly dysfunctional relationship.

Ann Turiano is the cat’s meow in this role. With her blasé attitude about the world and all it has to offer she’s the epitome of Coward’s vision of Amanda. Her stunning delivery of some of the play’s best lines wins her uproarious laughter and her rapid switch from jaded and charmed to dramatically incensed is handled with impeccable timing. Her tongue is wickedly vicious when she begins to snap, first at Victor then at Elyot. Turiano is a vision in this role; the black hair against pale skin when she first steps out onto the balcony making her the most stunning woman in France at the time, almost like a Betty Page pinup. Her performance glows with energy in all the key moments, and settles into a mellow existence at exactly the right time; a truly masterful and phenomenal example of perfection in acting.

It is said that very few people are completely normal deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. All of these circumstances come into play for this production, so whether you’re quarreling with your loved one or not, get yourself tickets to see this show before it closes. Sollocks!

(l to r) Sibyl (Rachel Holmes), Elyot (Michael P. Sullivan), Louise (Stephy Miller), Amanda (Ann Turiano), and Victor (Darren McDonnell). Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.
(l to r) Sibyl (Rachel Holmes), Elyot (Michael P. Sullivan), Louise (Stephy Miller), Amanda (Ann Turiano), and Victor (Darren McDonnell). Photo by Ken Stanek Photography.

Running Time: Approximately Two hours and 30 minutes, with two 15-minute intermissions.

Private Lives plays through June 30, 2013 at Vagabond Players – 806 South Broadway in Baltimore, Maryland. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther
Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


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