Stanford Repertory Theater presents the wide range of Noël Coward

Summer is the season for SRT's annual festival devoted to a single artist, but Coward may very well count as several.

Stanford Repertory Theater Noel Coward play

Stanford student Kiki Bagger, left, and company actress Courtney Walsh appear in Stanford Repertory Theater's production of Noël Coward's "Hay Fever."

Rush Rehm, theater professor and artistic director of Stanford Repertory Theater, admits to being something of a Noël Coward neophyte before organizing this summer's SRT festival, Noël Coward: Art, Style, and Decadence. In Rehm's thorough reading, listening and seeing all things Coward to prepare for the festival, he discovered to his great delight and amazement the extraordinary range of the artist's talents and contributions to popular culture.

Noël Coward was an actor, dancer, director, novelist, painter, playwright, screenwriter, singer, songwriter, lyricist and style icon who shaped important aspects of English and American culture from 1920–1970. Coward also helped to create the idea of a celebrity identity, which he later admitted had become "part of my job."

One of the goals of the festival is to present Coward in the artist's own voice. "That may sound obvious," Rehm said, "but so many productions of Coward these days fail to do the work necessary to catch the social norms, the British flavor, which is not simply accent, but a manner of behavior, and the 'throw-away line' that is so at odds with broader American humor, and is precisely what makes Coward unique and worth doing. We are featuring one of Coward's best – some think the best – of his high comedies, Hay Fever, directed by Lynne Soffer, who understands fully the Coward style."

Hay Fever is the main-stage centerpiece of the festival. It stars SRT company artist Courtney Walsh as Judith Bliss, the diva with a penchant for non-retirement, and features Deborah Fink as Myra Arundel, Richard Carlton as David Bliss, Rehm as Richard Greatham, Catharine Luedtke as Clara, and other SRT company members. The play runs July 16–Aug. 9, Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., in Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium.

Audiences may be surprised (and, Rehm added, enchanted) to see Coward performed in the style he helped to create and that made him famous: "The reserved comic clarity that Coward demands makes his work so much funnier than slapstick productions of his plays that sadly tend to characterize professional and community theater efforts alike. We are taking Coward's style seriously, which means the comedy lives beautifully and hilariously, true to the playwright's most lasting contribution to the theater."

The second-stage festival production is a Coward cabaret, directed by SRT veteran Brendon Martin. This version of Cowardy Custard, a musical revue of Coward's song- and lyric-writing career, moves through clever badinage and the lightness of operetta to the most poignant love songs. The company adopts a format that highlights Coward's post-World War II career as a cabaret performer and underscores his range and influence.

Stylish and debonair Dante Belletti is joined by Ellen Woods, Andre Amarotico and Samantha Williams to celebrate Coward's song, dance, style and flair. The cabaret production runs Aug. 13–23, Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. in Nitery Theater, Old Union.

Films, a symposium and tea

The Coward Festival started in June with a free Monday night film series focused on Coward's work as actor, director and screenwriter. Stanford faculty and SRT company members introduce each film and lead a post-screening discussion. Patrons receive a free filmography for each film, prepared by SRT's multitalented Roselyn Hallett.

Remaining films are Mondays at 7 p.m. through Aug. 10 at Cemex Auditorium. They include the historical drama In Which We Serve (July 20) and the ghostly comedy Blithe Spirit (Aug. 3). "We also screen two films that feature Coward as the character actor to whom Hollywood kept turning as the symbol of 'British-ness,' Our Man in Havana (July 27) and, more scurrilously, Bunny Lake Is Missing (Aug. 10)," Rehm said.

Another component of the festival is a daylong community symposium on Coward and his fusion of art, style and decadence. International scholars, Stanford faculty and SRT company members explore Coward's range, looking at his influence on modernism; his part in the creative explosion of the 1920s; his manifold appearances as a film actor, including selections from a hard-to-find 1935 film in which he stars, The Scoundrel; discussion of his attitude toward World War I and a performance of the key scene in his play about the war, his rarely performed Post Mortem; an examination of Coward and painting, including several scenes from his remarkably timely and very funny play about the absurdities of the art market, Nude With Violin; and a panel with SRT artists about the challenges of acting and directing the Coward plays. Associate Professor of English Nicholas Jenkins delivers the symposium keynote address.

The symposium takes place on Sunday, Aug. 1, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. in Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium. Tickets are $90 and include breakfast pastries, a luncheon of culinary distinction in the Coward manner, and afternoon coffee and tea. 

In, out, and back in style

According to Rehm, Coward went out of theatrical fashion after World War II, but returned to prominence in the 1960s thanks to some brave revivals, including Hay Fever at the National Theater. As the head of the company, Laurence Olivier hired Coward to direct the play. It was the first production in the National of a living playwright's work directed by its author.

"People re-found the liveliness of mind, the stunning wit, the lightness and superficiality that celebrated art and style rather than obvious content, the recognition that writing a dazzling 'entertainment' is one of the most difficult things to do and yet when done with such apparent ease and facility dazzles an audience and leaves them wanting more," Rehm said. "Coward had many gifts, but his talent to amuse remains forever timely, as long as theater artists and audiences take the care with it that it demands. And then it flies."

Stanford sophomore Ian Anstee, SRT's executive producer, said he believes in Coward's staying power because even though he thinks that entertainment culture has more or less moved past Comedy of Manners-type shows, everyone can relate to the characters Coward portrays. "Everyone has the melodramatic mother as manifested in Judith. Or the hyper-intellectual, pretentious friend as manifested in David. Coward's characters, while ridiculous, are accurate portrayals of people we see every day – people we love, people we hate, and people we love to hate," he said.