Private Lives review- a mannered comedy by a talented ensemble

ShawChicago Theatre Company bills itself as producing “comedy for serious people”. Their 2015-2016 season consists of two works of George Bernard Shaw, and a play by Noel Coward, “Private Lives”, presented at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts ,1016 N. Dearborn St, Chicago from November 22nd through December 15th. It should be noted that two other plays of Coward’s have been/are being performed here this 2015/2016 theatrical season: “Design for Living” ran from October 22 through November 22 at the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge, and “Fallen Angels” began November 25 and will run through January 10, 2016, by the RemyBumppo ensemble at the Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln.

Doug Mackechnie and Leslie Ann Handelman

ShawChicago performs what is called the art of the concert reading, presenting the material to the audience using sound alone. In other words, there is virtually  nothing but the script and the artists interpretations of that script. There are no stage sets, no props (except in our imaginations), no lighting effects and very spare costumes. In the play  “Private Lives”, we were graced with the women in dresses reminiscent of the1930’s, and the male lead wore a smoking jacket-that was all! Indeed, the scripts formed part of the action, as the actors often turned pages, fetched them back and forth, struggling and fighting with them.

The cast

The theory behind concert reading is that the range of voices and facial expression become the instruments of bringing to life the rhetorical devices living within the text of the play. During repeated rehearsals, “ShawChicago”s band of word musicians score the play…and in performance…the actors play the music that tells the story”.

Mary Mitchell and Michael Lasswell

Private Lives has been described as a romantic comedy on rediscovering love, but stripped of the rich accoutrements of costumes, sets and actions that have enlivened past performances and caused the play to rise to the level of French farce, it does not transcend but devolves to show us four underemployed people whose ideas of relationship and love are anything but sweet and fulfilling. This reviewer found virtually nothing at all to recommend any of these characters; they insulted and demeaned each other and themselves. Ultimately, this is a play about spousal contempt and abuse, and not a paean to rediscovering love, as the characters rail and shrill at each other and even slug it out.

Mary Mitchell and Michael Lasswell

Having said that, Barbara Zahora’s direction of Lydia Berger-Gray, Leslie Ann Handelman, Michael Lasswell, Doug MacKechnie and Mary Mitchell was taut, the language of the time beautifully rendered, the sense of the drama true. The story revolves around four people, two newlywed couples, the husband of one (Elyot) and the wife of the other (Amanda) having previously been married to each other and divorced. The two new couples are staying in adjoining rooms on their honeymoon, Elyot and Amanda chance upon each other and they run away from the simpering Sybil and stodgy Victor who join forces to track them down. In between the tepid wordy love scenes and quarrels, Amanda and Elyat realize they hate each other less than they feel contempt for their new spouses.

The cast with scripts


Private Lives will be at the Ruth Page through December 14, with extra performances added. As a mannered period piece done by a wonderfully talented ensemble, it is well worth seeing. For more information,go to the Shawchicago website

All photo credits courtesy of Janine Pixley

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