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Sean Murray on Noël Coward

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Sean Murray on Noël Coward

In the last of our three part interview series, we talked Noël Coward with Artistic Director Sean Murray, who will be directing The Vortex in rep with Hay Fever (directed by Rob Lutfy). Here’s what Sean had to say….

What drew you to Coward and these two very different shows in particular?

Sean Murray
Sean Murray

I’ve been enamored with Noel Coward and his work since I was introduced to his writing while I was in high school. First I was attracted to his wit, glamor and talent. His music was fun and clever. With time I began to discover that there is a deeper level in his work than readily apparent on the surface. He was consistently making revolutionary waves couched in his trademark style and glib barbs. Underneath the wit were biting commentaries on society and culture. He was a young playwright responding to a world that had recently come out of the other end of World War I. The War had shattered all sense of status quo and it was impossible for the young people who fought and survived that war to return to the social system from before the mayhem. For the youth of the 1920s, very little that had come before made any sense. Their disaffected and disillusioned view of life began to manifest itself into a decade of breaking norms and indulging in such scandalous things such as jazz, alcohol, drugs, and new fashions.

For a new nihilistic post-war world, Coward created plays that told these stories in ways that the middle and upper classes could enjoy them for their wit, but also allow themselves to be scandalized by their flagrant lack of morality. His plays dealt with characters who were divorced, inside society but critical of society; they did drugs, they had torrid affairs, terrible manners (in a country that rely on manners to keep things civil.) He was portraying a lost generation in search of meaning. His songs Play Orchestra Play, Poor Little Rich Girl, World Weary, etc, were songs that depicted a disillusioned generation dancing frantically to keep ahead of the haunting notion that nothing matters.

Coward had written several plays when a producer came to him to propose his West End debut and asked him which one should be his introduction to the West End audience. Both The Vortex and Hay Fever were in his list. He chose The Vortex because as he put it, “there was a ripping good role in it for [himself]” So The Vortex opened with Coward playing the central role of Nicky. He became an over night sensation and continued to be so for his entire career.

Coward in The Vortex (1925)
Coward in The Vortex (1925)

Hay Fever opened shortly thereafter, both plays running for a time concurrently on the West End. Both plays deal with a family who are outside of the accepted norms of society, for differing reasons. One is a comedy of manners, light, funny and a little naughty. The other is one of Coward’s only serious dramas. As he’s not particularly known for his serious side, The Vortex is seldom produced. By pairing it up with it’s doppleganger, Hay Fever, we can explore to very different sides of Noel Coward: his popular persona full of wit and clever barbs, and the other his less known but revolutionary and scathingly serious persona.

Hay Fever (1925)
Hay Fever (1925)

Why is he an important playwright and/or how is he a distinctly “Cygnet” choice?

It’s good to present Coward with fresh contemporary eyes. Allow his social critic voice to be heard. We like to do familiar work and bring it a fresh perspective.

Rosina Rep
Rosina Reynolds in The Vortex and Hay Fever

How do you feel these two plays work together? How is presenting in rep exciting? Challenging? 

There are some similar themes between these two plays. they are opposites in terms of their energy and the style of their story telling. The Vortex being a serious drama, a story about an alienated mother and her son facing hard truths about their relationship together, and Hay Fever, a light comedy of manners about an ill mannered and self absorbed family “entertaining” guests in their own indifferent and rude way.

What do you want audiences to experience from seeing both?
To be entertained, and to gain an appreciation for Coward, the playwright.

Catch The Vortex, directed by Sean Murray, in rep with Hay Fever, Sept. 23 – Nov. 8th at Cygnet Theatre.  Buy tickets now. 

Want more? Read Rosina Reynolds on Noel Coward.

Rob Lutfy on Noël Coward

In Part 2 of our three part interview series, we talked Noël Coward with Rob Lutfy, who will be directing Hay Fever in rep with The Vortex (directed by Sean Murray). Here’s what Rob had to say….

What drew you to Coward and these two very different shows in particular?

CYGNET 2014 (43)
Rob Lutfy

Coward was born to a middle class family and began a very successful acting career very young. He found himself at a young age accepted at the very top of society and managed to fit in there, while at the same time getting them to laugh at themselves and how shallow and misdirected they were.

Sean Murray articulates it better than I in our first email correspondence about the plays:

“Coward was dangerous, and safe. The perfect money maker. Remember that The Vortex was very close to being shut down by the censors for its flagrant display of drug use, homosexuality and loose morals. His first show was scandalous. His second show Hay Fever is just as scandalous but within the safe environs of drawing room comedy. He learned that he could make just as shocking a statement but palatable. Disguise the social commentary. His plays are vicious and naughty, not fa fa fa over martinis and vape pens as the cliché for him goes.”

Why is he an important playwright and/or how is he a distinctly “Cygnet” choice?

Coward wrote over 50 published plays and many albums of original songs, in addition to musical theatre, comic revues, poetry, short stories, a novel and three volumes of autobiography. His stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, including an Academy Honorary Award. Oh yes and he was knighted in 1969. So yes I’d say he is an important playwright.

The playwright John Osborne said, “Mr Coward is his own invention and contribution to this century. Anyone who cannot see that should keep well away from the theatre.” The Times said of him, “None of the great figures of the English theatre has been more versatile than he.”

As to why this is a distinctly Cygnet choice, let me draw a generational line. Without Coward there would have been no Pinter, without Pinter there would be no Andrew Bovell (the writer of When the Rain Stops Falling). We produce shows in our Repertory series to contextualize other shows in our season, past and present. We see the shoulders contemporary playwrights stand on; and by doing, see how the torch has been passed.

The company of Hay Fever and The Vortex
The company of Hay Fever and The Vortex

How do you feel these two plays work together? How is presenting repertory works exciting? Challenging? 

When Sean and I first started talking about this water softener.Sean wanted to honor Coward by showing two very different sides of the same man. Coward wrote Hay Fever at the age of 24 in three days while he was performing in The Vortex. Despite being known for his high comedies, Coward was also an unhappy gay man. Coward lived his life behind a mask–he had a public and a private persona. In some ways these two plays show both of those personas. Hay Fever– the public and The Vortex- the private.

Noël Coward and Elaine Stritch
Noël Coward and Elaine Stritch

In England, homosexuality was considered a criminal act until 1967. According to actress Elaine Stritch, “He was one of the saddest men I have ever known.”

It is very stimulating to have two directors working with the same actors and designers. There are compromises of course because we have two distinctively different shows. The Vortex has more locations and Sean is setting it in the 1960s, after another very significant war.

What do you want audiences to experience from seeing both?

These plays are about the 1 percent and how fame and money affect people. They are post World War, a shell-shocked society where all norms have been blown up in the reality of the trenches. The characters in both plays are trying to hold onto status quo in a world that has been forever altered by that war. They are about amorality vs. weak morality, conventional vs. unconventional and rebellion. It is also about artists making their way into the leisure class for the first time. Sean Fanning has designed a set for these plays that is a glass house- these people love to be on display. The design reflects on the plastic, surfacy, glossy, shallow world of the people in BOTH of these plays.

Hay Fever and The Vortex
Hay Fever and The Vortex

How will you share directing duties, work with casts etc.?

We have to be organized and have a killer stage management team, luckily we do. We also have two incredible assistant directors that will be helping to ensure that nothing falls between the cracks. This will be the first time at Cygnet that two directors are working on the Rep series.

What is your own experience with Coward either in acting or directing?

I have never worked on a Coward play, only read and seen his work. My mentor, Gerald Freedman was famous for directing high comedy. I will be channeling all the comedy technique that he has taught me over the years.

Catch Hay Fever, directed by Rob Lutfy, in rep with The Vortex, Sept. 23 – Nov. 8th at Cygnet Theatre. Buy Tickets Now.

Want More?  Read Rosina Reynolds on Noel Coward. 

Rosina Reynolds on Noël Coward

In Part 1 of our three part interview series, we talked Noël Coward with one of the stars, Rosina Reynolds, who plays Judith Bliss in Hay Fever and Florence Lancaster in The Vortex.  Next up are directors Sean Murray (The Vortex) and Rob Lutfy (Hay Fever).

Here’s what Rosina had to say….

Noël Coward

What draws you to Coward? Coward has always been a particular favorite of mine. What couldn’t you ask for….style, fabulously complex characters, brilliant language, clever repartee, and you get to wear gorgeous costumes.

Why do you think he is an important playwright? Coward is one of the great figures of English theatre, his plays rank in the classical tradition of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw. Harold Pinter had a huge regard for Coward, and considered him a big influence. There are similarities in their construction of language. Pinter wrote that watching Coward taught him that a playwright can have two characters saying one thing while clearly thinking about and meaning something else.

How do you feel these two roles work together? How is presenting a repertory exciting for you as an actor? Challenging? Judith and Florence are women with similar stories but hugely different ways of living their lives…a kind of ying and yang of women. To explore both of them at the same time is a gift…to explore the polar opposites presented by these two women. Will it be challenging…you bet…but isn’t that why we do it?

Rosina Rep
Rosina as Florence in The Vortex and as Judith in Hay Fever

 Have you worked on a Rep before? Quite a while ago. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

How will you prepare for these very different roles in different eras? Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. And rehearsal. Costumes and wigs will inform greatly.

What is your own experience/background with Coward either in acting or directing? I have been in Hay Fever twice, both time playing Myra Arundel. I was Amanda in Private Lives (San Diego Critics Circle/Craig Noel award for Best Actress) I have directed Fallen Angels and Blythe Spirit.

How do you feel about being back at Cygnet? It’s like coming home.

Rosina in Noises Off, The Glass Menagerie, Arcadia, Little Foxes, and Copenhagen
Rosina in Noises Off, The Glass Menagerie, Arcadia, Little Foxes, and Copenhagen

Announcing Season Thirteen

 From a fish falling out of the sky in the year 2039, to a “sweet transvestite”, to one stupid established men review : a terrible fake sugar daddy site. And we’re excited to share it with you now.  Without further antici…pation, here’s our 2015-2016 season!

Music and Lyrics by BENJ PASEK & JUSTIN PAUL
Based on the Warner Bros. Film and Screenplay by BOB COMFORT
Directed by SEAN MURRAY
July 16th – August 23rd, 2015. Opening July 25th, 2015.

It’s November 21, 1963. On the eve of their deployment to a small but growing conflict in Southeast Asia, three young Marines set out for one final boys’ night of debauchery, partying and maybe a little trouble. But when Corporal Eddie Birdlace meets Rose, an awkward and idealistic waitress he enlists to win a cruel bet with his fellow recruits, she rewrites the rules of the game and teaches him the power of compassion. Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical and praised by countless critics, Dogfight takes audiences on a romantic and heartbreaking theatrical journey that stays with you long after the performance. Featuring Dave Thomas Brown (Shakespeare’s R&J, Spring Awakening)  “Superbly crafted, gratifyingly intelligent, richly observant, and immensely enjoyable. This is musical theatre at its finest.” – Backstage

Dave Thomas Brown in Spring Awakening
Dave Thomas Brown in Spring Awakening

HAY FEVER (Performed in Rep with The Vortex)
Directed by ROB LUTFY
Semptember 23rd – November 8th, 2015. Opening October 3rd, 2015.

Retired stage star Judith Bliss, her novelist husband and their two bohemian adult children have each invited houseguests for the weekend. But as the Blisses indulge their artistic eccentricities in a hilarious whirlwind of flirtation and histrionics, the guests begin to wonder if they’ve landed in a madhouse – and if they can survive with their own wits intact. Set in an English country house in the 1920’s, Noël Coward’s hilarious comedy of bad manners has been a favorite amongst theatregoers ever since it first dazzled London’s West End in 1925.  “An evening of intoxicating escape” – The New York Times

THE VORTEX (Performed in Rep with Hay Fever)
Directed by SEAN MURRAY
September 24th – November 8th, 2015. Opening October 3rd, 2015.

Nicky Lancaster brings his elegant fiancée, Bunty, home to introduce her to his famous mother, stage actress Florence Lancaster. Nicky is shocked to discover that Florence has taken a much younger lover, and when Bunty ditches Nicky to run off with his mother’s boy-toy, both are forced to confront the truth about themselves. Noël Coward’s first commercially successful hit, The Vortex premiered in 1924 in London, and its scandalous subject matter of drug abuse, repressed homosexuality, nymphomania and Oedipal jealousy made Coward an overnight sensation. Hay Fever and The Vortex will feature Rosina Reynolds (The Glass Menagerie, Noises Off)  The Vortex (1924) is the play that turned Noël Coward into a star….Almost nine decades later, it still packs a powerful punch.” -The Telegraph

Rosina Reynolds in The Glass Menagerie
Rosina Reynolds in The Glass Menagerie

Adaptation and Lyrics by SEAN MURRAY
Directed by SEAN MURRAY
November 27th – December 27th, 2015. Opening December 5th, 2015.

Cygnet Theatre invites you to start your own family tradition with one of ours. This season welcomes the return of theholiday classic adapted from Charles Dickens’ timeless tale of hope and redemption. This re-imagined, fully staged production features original new music, creative stagecraft and puppetry, and live sound effects. Step into a Victorian Christmas card for a unique storytelling experience that is sure to delight the entire family!  “Critics Choice” in 2014 – UT San Diego

A Christmas Carol 2014
A Christmas Carol 2014

Directed by ROB LUTFY
January 14th – February 14th, 2016. Opening January 23rd, 2016.

Alice Springs in the year 2039. A fish falls from the sky and lands at the feet of Gabriel York. And it still smells of the sea. It’s been raining for days, and Gabriel knows something is wrong. Fifty years earlier, his grandfather, Henry Law, predicts that fish will fall from the sky heralding a great flood which will end life on earth as we know it. In an intricate, multi-layered story that spans four generations and two continents, When the Rain Stops Falling explores patterns of betrayal, abandonment, destruction, forgiveness and love. This powerful drama unfolds with humanity, surprising humor and hope, as the past plays out into the future.  “The Best New Play of Year” in 2010 – Time Magazine

Book, Music and Lyrics by RICHARD O’BRIEN
Directed by SEAN MURRAY
March 10th – May 1st, 2016. Opening March 19th, 2016.

A satirical tribute to the science fiction and B-list horror movies of the 20th century, the show centers around two naïve lovers, Brad and Janet. Seeking shelter from a thunderstorm in an old castle, they find themselves thrust into the laboratory of the cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter and his motley crew. Stripped of inhibitions — and their clothes — Brad and Janet embark on a wild, unforgettable journey of pleasure and self-discovery. Reality, fiction, and camp collide in this mash-up of comics, rock and roll, and late-night horror flicks.  “A musical that deals with mutating identity and time warps becomes one of the most mutated, time warped phenomena in show business.” – The New York Times

Directed by ROB LUTFY
May 19th – June 19th, 2016. Opening May 28th, 2016.

In this irreverent, contemporary, and very funny remix of Chekhov’s The Seagull, award-winning playwright Aaron Posner wages a timeless battle between young and old, past and present, in search of the true meaning of it all. An aspiring young director rampages against the art created by his mother’s generation. A nubile young actress wrestles with an aging Hollywood star for the affections of a renowned novelist. And everyone discovers just how disappointing love, art, and growing up can be. With music, meta-theatricality, and mad humor, playwright Aaron Posner beats The Seagull to a bloody pulp.  “Bitterly sardonic…Ferociously funny” – Stage and Cinema

Purchase single tickets here.

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The Best Kind of Madness

Albert Dayan as Lloyd DallasPhoto by Daren Scott

Jason Heil drove up to my hometown of Los Angeles to see a play, not cast one. But there we were, sitting in the audience of a theatre in Glendale, when my friend of many years floated a completely insane idea.

“Hey, you interested in auditioning for a play that begins rehearsals in a week?”

“I doubt it. Wait. Where’s it going up?”

“At Cygnet. In San Diego.”

What’s so insane about that? Well, for one thing, I am the father of an 11-month-child. And by father, I don’t mean a “show-up-in-the-evenings-and-pat-him-on-the-head” dad. No, I’m talking about a “full-time, daddy-day-care, I’m-the-one-who-gets-him-to-take-his-nap” dad. Moving to San Diego in a week’s time would effectively turn my wife into a single mom for the month it would take her to join me with our son, and leaving would also mean shuttering my tutorial business smack dab in the middle of its most profitable time of year. Jason, as usual, was entirely out of his mind.

“Sounds great. I’ll check with Katharine,” I told him.

A week later, there I was in the rehearsal room at Cygnet’s office, getting ready for the first read-through of Noises Off. It had all happened so fast. Seated around the table was a spectacularly talented cast. As luck would have it, a few among them were students or former students of mine. I’ve long taught a weekly acting class in San Diego and now, to my great delight, I’d be performing opposite several of them. Also in the show were San Diego luminaries Jonathan McMurtry and Rosina Reynolds, who I knew by reputation to be dauntingly talented actors. My role? Director Lloyd Dallas, the one who bosses them around.

Rehearsals turned out to be a blast, albeit a mind-numbing, exhausting blast. Anyone who’s done Noises Off can confirm for you two key things: one, it’s a hell of a good time and two, performing it is like running a marathon… in a blender… with a blindfold on. It’s the kind of show that leaves you with war stories. Just ask Rosina about her daily battle with the phone cord, or Sandy Campbell how I spit all over her, or Craig Huisenga how hard it is to make your pants fall off on cue. Ask Sean Murray how he manages, day in, day out, to keep us from accidentally killing each other.

Heading into previews I’m excited as hell. From the beginning, this whole journey for me has been absolutely the best kind of madness. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As my character Lloyd so aptly puts it in Act One, “That’s farce, that’s theatre, that’s life.”