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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

March 2, 2023 Issue
PART 6 (February 23, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


John Frazier Lights Up the PSI Stage as Ladies' Man
Garry Essendine in Noël Coward's Present Laughter

John Frazier stars as womanizing actor Garry Essendine in Switchyard Theatre Company's rendition of Present Laughter

Switchyard Theatre Company's production of Noël Coward's Present Laughter depicts a few days in the late 1930's life of successful, self-obsessed, philandering actor Garry Essendine as he prepares to go on tour in Africa. It is an evening of intelligent comedy of the Oscar Wilde style.

Present Laughter, which was written in 1939, but not staged until 1942, due to World War II, opens on a young woman in her dressing robe, waiting in a sitting room for world-loved comic actor Garry Essendine to emerge from his bedroom. Daphne, played in dramatic juvenile fashion by Dani Coan, forgot her latchkey the previous night and had to spend the night in Essendine's "spare room" -- apparently a common occurrence among the women whom he meets. After their night together, Daphne has fallen in school-girl-crush love with the almost involuntarily charming Essendine; and it takes the whole scene for him to get her to accept defeat and leave.

Stephanie Spohrer does a laugh-out-loud job demonstrating Essendine's maid Miss Erikson's quirky and confused facial expressions, as she shuffles in and out of the sitting room with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, experiencing momentary catatonic moments that the other characters clearly recognize but ignore. Her mannerisms are delightfully reminiscent of personal-assistant Bubbles on the hit British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.

Tania Kelly plays Essendine's secretary, Monica Reed, with the deliberate flatness required of someone who cleans up their boss' messes after anticipating -- but being unable to prevent -- them. And Gerald Rubin plays Essendine's valet Fred with good-hearted and polite but unimpassioned enthusiasm.

Shana Fisher's portrayal of Essendine's wife, Liz, is on mark, believably demonstrating Liz's patience with her husband's inability to say no, her part in cleaning up the messes that result, and her genuine love for the man she married and supports for the good of everyone involved.

Jamin Wade plays Essendine-obsessed playwright Roland Maule rather ludicrously, making other characters jump as he gasps with excitement at any prospect of genius in Essendine's comments. And Akili Holder-Cozart is unsubtly alluring and manipulative in her portrayal of Joanna Lyppiatt -- the whoring, social-ladder-climbing wife of Essendine's friend and partner Hugo Lyppiatt -- who seduces Essendine toward the end of the play.

Though all the actors are more than adequate, the star of the play is John Frazier, who plays Garry Essendine. It is worth going just to see him in action. Utilizing every inch of his large body and soul, Frazier's organic delivery of Essendine's charmingly self-indulging yet self-pitying lines immediately draws adoration from the audience akin to that of the play's fictional world. Frazier lights up the stage every time he appears; so that, when he is absent, you'll find yourself waiting for his return.

Intermission comes surprisingly quickly; and the second act wraps up the play nicely, leaving the audience to ponder society's acceptance of charismatic male philanderers, such as Garry Essendine, in contrast to women, such as Joanna Lyppiatt, who use their sex appeal for personal gain. Jodeya Brown's costumes and director Nadia Bodie-Smith's scenic design are chronologically accurate and comforting, making me think of my grandmother's world before she was my grandmother. And the good sound and lighting is easily taken for granted, which means that sound/lighting designer Valentina Moya and operator Patrick Lillie have done their jobs well.

The diversity of the Switchyard Theater Company cast successfully demonstrates the timelessness of the play's humor and the suitability of its themes, not only for the predominantly white British audience of 1942, but for today's racially and ethnically diverse American audiences. Indeed, three of the company's announced aims are to (1) "engage, entertain, and inspire greater-Triangle residents with reimagined classic plays"; (2) "provide opportunities for aspiring theater professionals of all ethnicities and gender identifications to grow through experience and education"; and (3) "facilitate a broader understanding of current events and our shared humanity through the entertaining power of theater."

Switchyard Theater Company's presentation of Noël Coward's Present Laughter, which runs through Sunday, March 5th, in the PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council, accomplishes all three of those aims. I thank the Durham Arts Council for facilitating this performance, and I look forward to more in the future.

Noël Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 and March 1-5), directed by Nadia Bodie-Smith and starring John Frazier as Garry Essendine, Shana Fisher as Liz Essendine, Tania Kelly as Monica Reed, Dani Coan as Daphne Stillington, Jamin Wade as Roland Maule, Cameron Waters as Morris Dixon, Naveed Moeed as Hugo Lyppiatt, Akili Holder-Cozart as Joanna Lyppiatt, Stephanie Spohrer as Miss Erikson, Gerald Rubin as Fred, and Joy Bryant as Lady Saltburn (Switchyard Theatre Company in the PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council in Durham). THE PRESENTER:,, and 2022-23 SEASON: THE VENUE: DIRECTIONS (scroll down): PARKING (scroll down): ACCESSIBILITY (scroll down): COVID REQUIREMENTS (scroll down): PRESENT LAUGHTER (1942 West End and 1946 Broadway Comedy):,, and NOËL COWARD (English actor, director, playwright, and composer, 1899-1973):,,,, and TICKETS: $25 ($10 students and $20 seniors 65+), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: PLEASE DONATE TO: Switchyard Theatre Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of the Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as a Soil and Water Conservationist for the nonprofit Urban Sustainability Solutions. Click here to read Melissa Rooney's reviews for Triangle Review.


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