Thwarted desire. Misplaced passion. The ecstasy, and misery, of romantic love.
It sounds like the stuff of high tragedy — or high comedy. In fact, it is both, as area theatergoers will discover this weekend.
To the north, PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria is opening a rare production of a Chekhov masterpiece, The Three Sisters. To the south, the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura is presenting one of Noël Coward’s most perfectly constructed comedies, Private Lives.
On one level, these plays represent the yin and yang of 20th-century theater. The first is despair-filled, while the second is dazzlingly witty. But dig under their surfaces, and you’ll find surprising similarities.
Both feature passionate people whose romantic longings lead to pain at least as often as they lead to pleasure. What’s more, the central characters of each are members of a dying aristocracy. “These are aimless, scared people,” said Andrew Barnicle, director of Private Lives.
It’s a comment that could easily have come from Roger DeLaurier, director of The Three Sisters. That drama focuses on — you guessed it — three sisters who find themselves stuck living in a stultifying, dull, provincial Russian city. Unsure how to make their way back to Moscow, they watch passively as their brother’s predatory wife gradually takes over the household.
In contrast, the confused characters at the center of Private Lives, Amanda and Elyot, do take action to end their misery: They get divorced and subsequently marry other people. But after a chance encounter at a hotel, their incendiary love-hate relationship catches fire once again, leaving them as intoxicated and irritated as ever.
“I feel that people have a misguided sense of who Noël Coward was, and what kinds of plays he wrote,” said Barnicle, former artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse, where this production originated last year. “The mythology is his plays consist of skinny people walking around in tuxedos with martini glasses in their hands, throwing out quips.
“In fact, his characters, while eccentric, to be sure, are very real; they couch their wants in sardonic humor. What I tell the actors is, find a real reason why they feel the need to behave artificially.”
For The Three Sisters, the actors must convey a sense of why their characters can’t escape from their self-imposed prisons. But don’t confuse a lack of action with a lack of drama. “The stakes for these characters are so high,” DeLaurier said, “and their striving is so intense. [Through their stories] Chekhov tackles some of life’s big questions. What is meaningful in life? What keeps us from living the life we dream of? What gets in the way?”
In Chekhov, a sad surface is interrupted by moments of pseudo-absurdist humor. In Coward, an undercurrent of sadness and worry informs an amusing surface.
“I’ve always appreciated the quality of an audience’s laughter more than the quantity,” said Barnicle. “If the audience is really listening, and living along with these characters, there are probably five major ‘identification laughs’ along the way. Those are the ones you want. That means the audience is following the story and understanding who these people are.”
Another similarity between the plays is the youth of the major characters, virtually all of whom are under 35.
“When Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton did Private Lives (in the 1980s), they created the notion that it was a play for an older couple,” Barnicle said. “I think that’s wrongheaded. You see these characters in the twilight of their adolescence. When somebody is acting this way in their sixties, it’s much harder to sympathize.”
Besides, he added, the physical fight between the two leads isn’t especially amusing when it looks like one or the other may end up breaking a hip.
“We’ve got an Amanda who is just as strong physically as Elyot,” Barnicle said. “When they start throwing each other over couches, you’re more worried for him than you are for her. It’s certainly spousal abuse, but it’s even-handed, and you realize these people live for this. They want to fight! It is funny, but it’s a little horrific at the same time.”
This production is Barnicle’s first attempt at Coward, just as The Three Sisters is DeLaurier’s first Chekhov.
“I’ve been waiting my whole career to do it,” DeLaurier said, noting that while Chekhov is an integral part of the academic curriculum, his plays seldom receive full productions. This is PCPA’s first since The Seagull in 1980.
In a sense, it’s a perfect time to get reacquainted with the Russian master. Like his characters, many of us find ourselves dazed and confused as we navigate a world that is changing at a ridiculously rapid rate. DeLaurier understands that feeling of dislocation, and sees it reflected in one of his favorite Chekhov quotes: “Any idiot can survive a crisis. It’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.”
The Three Sisters previews September 6-7 and runs September 8-30 at Severson Theatre (Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria). Call 922-8313 or see pcpa.org. Private Lives previews September 5-7 and runs September 8-30 at Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). Call 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.