“Present Laughter” is a Mad Cap British Comedy
The light-hearted British farce “Present Laughter” by Noel Coward features a self-obsessed actor in the midst of a midlife crisis attempting to juggle a star-struck admirer, a crazed playwright, his ex-wife and the personal lives of his eccentric friends. The comedy classic runs March 1-10 at the Hartung Theater on the University of Idaho campus.
Coward created the central character as a caricature of himself because he wanted to play a huge, comic role. “Present Laughter” has garnered positive reviews in its eight decades of production. In 2017 it was revived on Broadway with Kevin Kline in the starring role.
Over-the Top Characters
Playing the lead character of Garry Essendine is Gerrit Wilford, a Master of Fine Arts performance candidate, who describes the production as high-energy, very physical and intellectually witty.
“It’s a fast-paced, raucous British sex farce,” Wilford said.
The character of Essendine is a large, over-the-top celebrity who is used to getting what he wants and has a fondness for whiskey, brandy and sherry.
“He’s not afraid to be gregarious,” Wilford said. “His life is one long endless comic torment.”
The role is a pleasant departure from the more heavy and dramatic characters Wilford has portrayed in the past couple of years: the powerful Oberon in “A Midwinter Night’s Dream,” the straight-arrow Austin in “True West” and the simmering Ben in “Dumb Waiter.”
“This show is above reality, it’s fun and liberating,” Wilford said, noting the physicality, light combat and chase scenes, “It will be a sprint to the end.”
“Present Laughter” is directed by Craig A. Miller, assistant professor of acting and directing. He describes the show as fast and furious, requiring deft precision in its comedic style and delivery for maximum funny-bone impact on the audience.
“All this silliness and language play is a lot of hard work, but with a hugely hilarious payoff,” Miller said.
The show features a cast of 10 students from the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, and alumna Nancy Lee-Painter, a professor of theatre at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston.
Kylee Teal, a senior from Anchorage, Alaska, has appeared in a number of productions in her four years at U of I. Her character of Joanna, who has eyes for Wilford’s Essendine, is her first in the role of playing a sexy temptress.
“She has stellar confidence and no inhibitions,” Teal said. “I was drawn to her seductive nature and could imagine how much fun it would be.”
Teal grew up watching British comedy shows and said she and her friend would talk with an accent for weeks at a time, something that will come in handy. She and the cast have been polishing their British accents, with homework that includes watching “Downton Abbey” and listening to pronunciations.
Helping as text and dialect coach is Dylan Paul, an assistant professor of performance and a voice and speech professional. Paul has appeared on Broadway and as a company member of numerous Shakespeare festivals around the country. He holds the Voice and Speech Trainers Association Clyde Vinson Award, and is a special consultant for the International Dialects of English Archive.
“Dylan is very helpful,” Wilford said. “It’s a lot of work to talk like that. It’s so much more rigid.”
Within the upper crust British sharpness there is an unmistakable musicality to the script, said Bryce Gowey, a junior from Mountain Home. Gowey plays the innocent and eager Roland.
“There’s a beautiful balance of language in ‘Present Laughter,’” Gowey said. “I can see Noel Coward’s love of theater in his writing.”
Article by Kelly O’Neill, Department of Theatre Arts
Published in February 2019.