CowardFest offers an intriguing adaptation and a flat 'Nude'

This year’s Master Playwright Festival, dedicated to British wit Noël Coward, wraps up on Sunday. Here are two of the productions running for the festival’s final weekend.
You Were There features Elliot Lazar (in shadow), Dora Carroll and Aaron Pridham (Matt Duboff)

This year’s Master Playwright Festival, dedicated to British wit Noël Coward, wraps up on Sunday.

Here are two of the productions running for the festival’s final weekend:

You Were There (A Shadow Play) (Pocket Frock)

A talented young company presents this modernized adaptation of Coward’s short drama Shadow Play.

It’s based on an intriguing premise and has enough style and smart production to engage, but is hampered by an uneven script.

As in Coward’s original, a couple with a fraught romantic history meets, and the past of their relationship plays out in re-enactments, some performed as a shadow play behind a backlit curtain.

In this version, the unnamed boy (Aaron Pridham) is a troubled and struggling songwriter, who falls for a more confident musician (Dorothy Carroll). Emily King and Elliot Lazar play the shadows and other characters, as present and past intertwine to paint a picture of the bumpy relationship.

There are many moments that work wonderfully in director Tatiana Carnevale’s production. The shadow play is often used to great, and frequently charming, effect. A couple of Coward songs from the original play are re-worked here in beautiful rearrangements by Paul De Gurse (his version of “Play, Orchestra, Play” suggests Coward songs work best on ukulele).

And the four young actors all give fine performances, especially Pridham, who finds an aching depth to the character of the struggling artist.

Playwright Logan Stefanson makes his full-length debut with this adaptation, and the results suggest a writer finding his voice. There are some very nice touches — he weaves past and present cleverly in the script — but the central premise of a tortured artist putting a woman on a pedestal is just a bit too cliched, and some of the dialogue feels too forced and unnatural.

It’s a promising debut but definitely the work of an emerging playwright. Even so, if you’re keen to see up and coming local talent on display, You Were There is worth a visit.

It runs until Feb. 14 at the MAP Studio, 100 Arthur St.

Nude With Violin (Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre)

Unlike some of the master playwrights we’ve seen in the past, much of Coward’s best writing came relatively early in his career.

If you need proof, look no further than his 1956 satire of the pretension and hypocrisy of modern art, Nude With Violin.

The light comedy details the aftermath of the death of Paul Sorodin, a famed abstract artist. As his family and acquaintances gather to sort out his estate, a shocking truth about his artwork is revealed.

Unlike earlier Coward works like Private Lives and Blithe SpiritNude With Violin has not aged particularly well. Putting aside its casual racism (tough to do, since there’s a fair bit of it in this play), its satire feels both more on-the-nose and also less sharp than his earlier plays.

It still offers some of Coward’s trademark barbed one-liners, most of them going to Sorodin’s faithful and sharp-tongued valet, Sebastien. Connor Hopper is the production’s standout player in the role, delivering a smooth, obsequious charm, and earning laughs by landing his most pithy lines sharply.

It’s community theatre, so the rest of the performances in director Jeff Madden’s production range from a bit stiff to very good (both Monica Reis and Elizabeth Madden turn in nice, bold comic performances as women with a “colourful” past with Sorodin).

But at nearly two-and-a-half hours, plus intermission, it drags. It’s a production that feels like it gets very close to the pacing and comedic timing it needs but never quite launches itself into high gear.

Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre gives it a good effort but it’s hard to escape the fact that Nude With Violin simply isn’t high art.

It runs until Feb. 14 at Université de Saint-Boniface, 200 avenue de la Cathédrale


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