English playwright/actor/songwriter Noel Coward ( 1899-1973 ) never publicly came out as gay in his lifetimeeven when British laws against homosexuality were officially rescinded in 1967. But Coward didn't exactly spend his life cowering in the closet, either.
Long before his plays briefly fell out of critical favor in the 1950s and '60s when most of the attention was focused on works by "angry young men," Coward himself was known for stirring up controversy ( and dropping coded hints about gay culture ) by dealing with risqué topics and featuring effete characters in his works during the 1920s and '30s. For instance, Coward shocked London audiences in 1924 when he starred as the drug-addicted hero Nicky Lancaster in his drama The Vortex. Coward also pushed boundaries by depicting a dysfunctional bisexual three-way relationship in his 1933 comic drama Design for Living ( which was recently revived locally by Pride Films and Plays in an acclaimed production ).
Chicago audiences can get even more Coward via two current productions. Actress/director Barbara Zahora is in charge of ShawChicago's bare-bones staged reading of Coward's ever-popular 1930 comedy Private Lives about two remarried divorcees who run out on their new spouses to take up with each other again. Then for Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's first-ever Coward production, actress/director Shannon Cochran is overseeing his rarely produced 1925 comedy Fallen Angels.
"Since it is a woman-centered show, they wanted the sensibilities of a female director," Cochran said. "I jumped at the chance because I had never seen a production of Fallen Angels. I read it many years ago and I like to come at things completely innocent and not colored by past productions."
Fallen Angels is a drawing-room comedy that explores sexual double standards as two young housewives ponder pursing a common past lover when both of their husbands are away for a golfing weekend.
"You can get a sense of the stirrings of restlessnessespecially among the female population," said Cochran, noting how select British women obtained limited voting rights after World War I while women in general had experienced more personal freedoms while the men were away fighting. "That started their small rebellion of trying to get out and enjoy some of the same privileges and pleasures that the men had been enjoying all along. Coward seemed to know this and caught the spirit of the times just at the perfect point and he threw this up onstage with women behaving indecently and drinking and talking about pre-marital sex and all these subjects that were strictly taboo."
Cochran said audiences of the time were scandalized by Fallen Angels as much as other Coward works, though she's uncertain why it has faded in the limelight and doesn't score as many revivals when compared to his other plays like Private Lives, Hay Fever or Blithe Spirit.
"It's every bit as funny, and the great fun of Fallen Angels is this is as probably as close as NoÃ«l Coward ever came to farce," Cochran said. "You know, mistaken identities, chases, slamming doors and big physical pratfalls. It's kind of a mystery to me why it's not more popular."
Since Remy Bumppo hasn't produced Coward before, Cochran wanted her production of Fallen Angels to push the company's limits.
"I had some ideas in my mind that a little more fun could be had if we added things that they're not known for. One of the things I brought to the table because of my background was elements of musical theater," said Cochran, revealing that she is soon to star in the national tour of Cabaret as Fraulein Schneider. "So there is some movement and songs included in this production that you wouldn't typically see in a production of Fallen Angels. I think it has a lot more pizazz that way so it's not a typical drawing room comedyit has the heightened feel of one of the great musical comedies of that period."
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company's Fallen Angels continues through Sunday, Jan. 10, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays ( also Wednesdays on Dec. 16, 23, 30 and Jan. 6 ), 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Saturdays, Dec. 12 and 26, and Thursdays, Dec. 24 and 31. No show Dec. 25. Tickets are $42.50-$52.50. $15 student tickets available for select performances. Call 773-404-7336 or visit www.remybumppo.org .
ShawChicago's staged reading production of Private Lives continues through Monday, Dec. 14, at the Ruth Page Center Theater, 1016 N. Dearborn St. Performances are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Mondays. Tickets are $30; $25 for seniors; $15 for students. Call 312-587-7390 or visit www.shawchicago.org .