Grassy Noël

Oh, Coward! outdoors is a breath of fresh air.

Oh, Coward! Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 North Portage Path, Akron Through August 17, 330-836-5533
Jamie Cordes and Jan Guarino make the most of - Coward's best.
Jamie Cordes and Jan Guarino make the most of Coward's best.

Wit is dead. Okay, maybe it's not dead -- but definitely on life support, with a gaggle of distant but healthy relatives (slapstick and farce among them) lurking nearby, ready to yank the plug. In a world in which Jimmy Kimmel and Carrot Top are considered funny, it's understandable that many cast a fond eye back to a time when wit was employed with dexterity and panache. And no one in the last several decades epitomized the soul of wit as did Noël Coward.

A multifaceted and preternaturally British entertainment machine -- he wrote, he performed, he was the featured attraction at fabulous parties -- Coward was immensely droll, but not in a prissy way. When a London stage performance of Gone With the Wind was disturbed by an overemoting child actor and a horse that relieved itself onstage, Coward said, "If they'd stuffed the child's head up the horse's arse, they'd have solved two problems at once." Many of his other witticisms and irreverent songs are featured in Oh Coward! on the Stan Hywet Hall grounds.

Presented by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, this three-person sampler of Coward's best is performed in a suitably elegant outdoor setting, in the estate's lagoon area, with a gorgeous two-story stone teahouse as a backdrop. It's a cozy nook, overflowing with ivy, plants, and -- thanks to this effervescent show -- nonstop laughter. One of the first songs is a duet between two working-class English sods who are reveling in the various maladies and mishaps that have befallen their friends and relatives, including kidney stones, shingles, and inopportune farting attacks. Much of the humor in these pieces arises from the juxtaposition of base subject matter with Coward's refined word choices and lilting melodies. Other tunes deal with a randy missionary, the bleak but eminently rentable homes of England, and a foul old auntie ("Though her kiss is worse than death/It's rude to hold your breath").

Many of the songs are just snippets, and director Nancy Cates wisely keeps the pace brisk. This approach comports with Coward's recommendation that actors talk through their audience's laughs, thus giving patrons the impression that they're missing things and the show is actually funnier than it is. The comical references whip by in a flash, and there is rarely a dull moment as the trio bouncily explores the conundrum of "Why do the wrong people travel, while the right people stay back home?" and the vexations of hostile cruise-ship employees in "The Customer's Always Right" (their conclusion: "Give them anything they want, from sex to dynamite, because the goddamn customer's always right"). Sex is also touched on frequently, but obliquely, by the not-so-ambiguously gay Coward, as in "Young Bobby Carr did a stunt at the bar/With a lot of extraordinary men."

Each of the three cast members brings a special performance quality and physicality to the production, which further enhances the material. Slim and impish Jan Guarino is equally adept at singing sweetly and playing the fool -- which she does with brio -- while wearing an ever-changing selection of spectacular gowns from the first half of the 1900s. She is particularly amusing as a feather-bedecked royal, who reveals her checkered background as she sings, "Today it may be three white feathers/But yesterday it was three brass balls." Jamie Cordes, tall and handsome, cuts a splendid figure in a tux as he applies his operatic baritone to Coward's whimsical songbook. And he camps it up delightfully in "Nina," a tune about a reluctant dancer. Rounding out the group is stocky, beetle-browed Timothy Champion, whose deadpan stares and agonized double-takes goose many of the laughs.

When performing together, as they do in "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," among others, the three voices blend appealingly -- just missing Manhattan Transfer-style smoothness. The seamless atmosphere of the show is remarkable, given that the actors are traipsing all over the stage, the stairs, the teahouse, and even the grounds during the proceedings. While the sound system is a bit fuzzy and the resonance of the keyboard (manned very capably by John Ebner) is rather brassy, the singers never miss a beat. And why would they, when they can croon about the splendors of "fishing on a reef/Wearing just pearls and a leaf"?

Ultimately, the soul of Coward's wit is embedded in the endless surprises he tucks into his anecdotes and ditties, be they blindside punch lines ("She had the ham sent down from Scotland." "Why?" "It lives there when it's alive." ) or unexpected rhyme schemes ("But Englishmen detest a siesta . . ."). And in this alfresco setting, the combination of wit and beauty is simply irresistible. Whether you're a Coward fan or a newcomer to his oeuvre, this production will ensure that you're "Mad About the Boy."

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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