Monday, April 23, 2012

Asolo Theater Presents Fallen Angels

Too many years ago to count on both hands, my friend Andrea and I were on vacation in London and I went to see my first Noel Coward play.  It was Design for Living, and I remember it being pretty racy despite the fact that it was written back in the 1930s.  (I also remember that they sold ice cream in the aisles of the theater during intermission, which is totally irrelevant but it did make an impression!)   Since then, I've seen a couple of Coward plays on Broadway--Present Laughter (with Frank Langella) and Private Lives (with Alan Rickman)--and have always thoroughly enjoyed them.  There's a freshness to his writing that never goes out of style.  So I was excited when I learned that Coward's Fallen Angels was in this season's line-up at the Asolo Repertory Theater.    Again, it was a thoroughly enjoyable theater experience.  

The set-up in Fallen Angels is that two British women who've been friends forever each had a fling with the irresistible Maurice during their respective pre-marriage travels.   Seven years later, at a time when their marriages have become a bit dull, each woman wakes up with a "presentiment" that something out of the ordinary is going to happen that day.  And it does--each receives a note from Maurice saying that he is coming to London and would like to see her.  The women's husbands have conveniently gone off golfing for the week-end, leaving them to work themselves up into a lather over the thought of seeing Maurice again.

Hampton and Clemens in character
Kate Hampton and Hillary Clemens are terrific as the two friends.   Clemens in particular gets to show off her physicality as an actress in a hilarious scene when the two have had a wee bit too much to drink as they wait none too patiently for Maurice to show.   It was Carolyn Michel, though, who stole the show in her performance as Saunders, the maid.  (Her actual name is Jasmine, but the lady of the house thinks that Saunders is much more sophisticated sounding, so "Saunders" it is.)  Saunders has worked for an amazing array of people--including some royalty and a concert pianist--and always knows just a bit more than her employers and their friends about whatever topic is being discussed.   She has advice for the gentleman of the house about the golf course he will be playing.  (No need to bring those woods!)  She plays the piano beautifully and speaks French fluently (which comes in handy when the women are composing a note to Maurice).    And there was a quite funny scene when the women were talking about sucking on pebbles in order to relieve their thirst (the context is way too silly to try and explain) and Saunders has first-hand knowledge of this tactic from her time working with the Red Cross.  

Fallen Angels was pretty scandalous when it first opened in 1925 with its "frisson of naughtiness" (in the words of director Peter Amster).   It was written at a time of cultural change in England, when the Brits were shaking off the effects of World War I and looking for a bit of fun.  It was a time of a shift from Victorian restrictive gender roles to a world of Flappers and freedom.  (I would be remiss not to mention the beautiful costumes in the show.  In the opening act, Hampton wears these shimmering silk pajamas that were to die for.   This was just one of the estimated 400 costumes that were created for the 2011-2012 Asolo season.)   The Asolo helps you place the play in its historical context with a timeline in the program of British Culture in the 1920s, from the first broadcast of the BBC in 1922 to Rene Lacoste's victory at Wimbledon in 1925 to the women gettig the vote in 1928.   From the acting to the sets to the program, the Asolo put on a first class production.  


Fallen Angels isn't a play that makes you think serious thoughts or that you need to contemplate after you've left the theater.  As Peter Amster said, the play "doesn't solve World Hunger or ask questions about Death and God and Why We Are Here."   And that's quite alright with me.   I'm perfectly happy to have spent a couple of hours in a dark theater laughing at the silliness going on onstage (with some nice time with my friend Stephanie before she flies away for the summer as a bonus!)    And now that I've been reminded what a wonderful theater the Asolo is, I'm excited about next year's season, which includes Wendi Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles and Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You.  And I might sneak in a performance of Fanny Brice in May before the theaters in the area more or less go dark for the summer months.  Watch this space for updates!  


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