Present Laughter (2018) – A Review

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“Alas, poor Yorick.   I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest….”  Above the fireplace within stage actor Gerry Essendine’s late 1930s flat in London is an image of the actor himself, holding a skull, which is no doubt one his own favorite images of himself from his performance as Hamlet.   Essendine’s past, present, and future are all explored in the First Presbyterian Theater’s run of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.  Surrounded by a vivacious and eccentric cast, this play delves into the life of a celebrity within the performing arts and reminds us of how the human heart desires companionship far more than it does material wealth and momentary satisfaction.

Gerry Essendine is played by the highly talented and expressive Todd Frymier.  In capturing this self-centered, witty character, Frymier also achieves a convincing level of self-loathing.  As the play progresses, we can see how a playboy lifestyle eventually has worn on him to the point of near madness and despair.

Making her Fort Wayne stage debut is Shelby Lewis as Daphne Stillington.  Though her resume includes a number of lead Shakespearean roles, Lewis excels as a young woman who is clearly ready to shed her girlish naivete and is anxiously desiring to enter an adult relationship.  In her vibrant performance, Lewis convincingly captures a young woman whose obsession with Essendine has clouded her take on reality. Susan Kahn plays Lady Saltburn, whose perfect moniker creates a tense and incredibly awkward moment in the life of a man whose private life and desires are unravelling far faster than he cares to admit.  

Essendine’s employees include a secretary, a butler, and a cleaning woman, each of whom shape Essendine’s complex lifestyle and bitter flaws.  As the secretary Monica Reed, FPT mainstay Nancy Kartholl delivers a consistent, no-nonsense performance as a woman whose own adulthood has been devoted to working for a man whose career is framed by becoming someone different.  Kartholl’s character has, it seems, evolved as maternal, and the two of them exhibit how the balance some people have with one another can result in a lifelong friendship.

Gary Lanier plays Fred, Essendine’s personal butler.  Lanier’s jovial presence counters many of the high-anxiety moments, especially those involving Essendine’s lovers.  Lastly, Pam Karkosky delights as the chainsmoking Miss Erickson. Karkosky’s character is perhaps the truest ‘yin’ to Essendine’s ‘yang’ in that her completely unabashed views on the situations withing the apartment suggest that raw mentality most of us withold behind a filter.  

On a secondary level, Suzan Moriarty and Jim Nelson further complete the turmoiled main character.  Moriarty plays Liz Essendine, Gerry’s ex-wife, though they apparently never took the time to make that dissolution of marriage official.  Though her scenes are sporadic, Moriarty shapes our picture of Gerry Essendine by inserting a limited amount of intimate details of the famed actor.  Jim Nelson glowingly performs as eccentric Roland Maule. Maule’s desire to be near Essendine is similar to that of Daphne Stillington’s, though it is much more professionally than romantically driven.  Throughout this comic drama, Nelson excels as a quirky bystander within a deeply complex romantic web.

The remaining cast members further intensify the story, especially the latter scenes.  Andrew Gross and Jim Matusik play Gerry’s friends and colleagues, Henry and Morris, respectively.  As with every other character, these two men shape a dimension of the main character whose life seems to be crashing down with each ring of the doorbell.  Finally, Gloria Minnich performs as Joanna Lyppiatt. Minnich counters Frymier’s Essendine exquisitely through biting dialogue and a flirtatious, yet bedeviling presence. She accelerates the comic tension that had been building the entire time.  

Director Christopher Murphy selected this play after catching a performance led by film and stage legend Kevin Kline.  He notes that the plot is, perhaps surprisingly, not outdated. It seems apparent that exploring the life of an ego-centric performer is just as timely as ever, given modern society’s obsession with the privated lives of its idols within the arts.  Murphy and Rae Surface coordinated the set design, and the Essendine-as-Hamlet portrait was no accident. Hamlet, upon finding the skull of the deceased clown, reflects on his boyhood innocence, which, for this play, is a direct correlation to how Essendine longs to grasp his own true life back after having spent years being other people on stage and only a small, witty version of himself with close company off stage.  Through a balanced amount of tension and humor, Present Laughter reminds us to simply enjoy this short life we have together.  

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Response Paper #1 – Fall 2018

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Note:  This is the first of 9 Response Papers students in ENG 647 (African-American Literature) are required to submit.  Each week, I will post my submission.   More about my experience at Ball State University can be found here.

Shared Oppression:  Harper’s “The Two Offers” and Wells’s “from A Red Record”

The literature authored by African-American women in the second half of the nineteenth century generated a new platform of discourse to a undeterred, growing and audience of slaves, former slaves, and abolitionists.  Two selections from that era share one penetrating theme: that women have an obligation–one that is arguably stronger than that of men–to lift one another up from oppression. In Frances E. W. Harper’s “The Two Offers” (1859),  the advice given from one character was not heeded and was ultimately regretted by the other character, though this fictitious scenario is obviously presented as a warning to young female readers. Secondly, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in Part One of A Red Record (1895), highlights the white women of the post-Emancipation era who offered educational services for former slaves.  Both selections expose this natural bond and instinctive desire to assist those who are clearly at a social- or educational disadvantage.  Of course, writers highlighting benevolent actions was nothing new; however, women being on both ends of this benevolence emerged as a new trope in literature and social commentary.  Both of these writers address this in a forward-looking fashion and do not dwell on past generations where men held all of the power among the land and within the home.

“The Two Offers” presents a moral dilemma for a potential bride who has two suitors that, after the first few paragraphs, feels ordinary.  However, Harper’s exquisite narrative style siphons into the past and explores how each woman in the opening scene has developed and secured her stance on this dilemma.  By presenting a deep, detailed backstory to both Laura (the “bride”) and her cousin Janette, the reader is alloted enough background to grasp the two distinguishable perspectives on the immediate conflict of having two men offer marriage.  By relinquishing key pieces of information about each of these two characters, Harper directly points to their opposing views and expresses how one’s moral compass is a direct result of her upbringing. Again, while a child’s rearing resulting in his actions of adulthood had long been a common technique in literature, focusing on a woman’s girlhood had yet to become mainstream.   

Because Janette’s mother was uneducated about her deceased husband’s business dealings, Janette’s family status plummeted after her father’s unexpected death.  Here, Harper is cleverly exhibiting the backlash of ignorance in the sudden event of a husband’s absence. After her mother passed as well, this now poverty-stricken young woman lacked anything resembling a support system and was motivated to work harder than ever to emerge in adulthood as someone whose challenges in childhood led to her “position in the literary world”.  It should also be noted that skin tone was not at all the focal point within this story. Thus, Harper’s focus is not that of just black women lifting up and advising others about love and marriage; rather, her focus seems to be for all women to see their options clearly.  As opposed to Laura, who is described as being her husband’s “prize” and “title-deed”, Janette’s bold independence becomes the pummeling, inspirational theme for female readers and an obvious stance against standard gender roles for male readers.  

As one of the foremost post-Civil War black female journalists, Ida B. Wells-Barnett fully understood that presenting inspirational material to an audience was far more beneficial than focusing solely on the horrible negatives of the era.  A Red Record includes a short passage in Part One concerning the “divine sentiment” of white Northern women to go to the South and educate ex-slaves.  This motherly gesture was, to Wells, an act of “heroism” which was essentially ignored, or at least not worthy of being “cheered”, by southern white men.  Embedded within a series of supported facts and perspectives on how America has adjusted since The Emancipation, Wells applies the three tenets of effective rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos.  Sharing the bravery of white women traveling to the South for the sole purpose of helping raise the educational levels of ex-slaves is presented as honorable (though she notes these women were identified by Southern whites often with unkind terms).  Asserting that anyone’s advancement in life is the direct result of one’s education–especially one’s literacy–continues and supports that sympathetic- or empathetic bond. Lastly, laying out the raw truth that the long-standing fear and subsequent false accusations of rape by black men handicapped an entire group’s progress logically results in the ongoing disparity among the races and the genders.  

Prior to this era, women’s voices and roles in society were extremely limited in the home and in print.  Each author, in her own manner, clearly desired to instill in her readers a fresh perspective of opportunity.  No longer should any woman believe that her place in life is second to that of a man. By exhibiting a character who enjoyed opportunities and a report of how no woman should believe she is literally on her own, Harper and Wells-Barnett helped solidify a new era in woman readership: the independent female.