Monday, February 11, 2013

Design for Living by Noël Coward, Austin Shakespeare at the Rollins Theatre, Long Center, February 6 - 24, 2013

Design for Living Noël Coward Austin Shakespeare TX

by Christine El-Tawil and Michael Meigs

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 and by Cole Porter 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.

Design for Living Noël Coward Austin Shakespeare TX
Michael Miller, Martin Burke, Helen Merino (photo: Austin Shakespeare)
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.

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