On Theater: 'Private Lives' closes the Barnicle era

When Noel Coward's "Private Lives" takes the stage of the Laguna Playhouse next weekend, it'll mark the end of an era — a 20-year era for its director, Andrew Barnicle.

Barnicle signed on back in 1991 as the artistic director of the playhouse and has given local audiences some memorable productions, both as director and sometimes actor.

He's hanging up the "artistic director" title following this season, however, and moving on to other venues. But he's promised to return to Laguna on occasion.

During his two decades at the playhouse helm, Barnicle directed 38 productions and produced more than 100. He's best remembered (at least in this corner) for his staging of Michael Hollinger's "Red Herring," Yasmina Reza's "Art," Richard Dresser's "Rounding Third" and a pair by Bernard Farrell, "Many Happy Returns" and "Lovers at Versailles."

As an actor on the Laguna stage, Barnicle appeared in six productions, most notably as Lawrence in "The Ice-Breaker" and as Austin in "True West."

Prior to his Laguna stint, Barnicle headed the theater program at United States International University's School of Performing Arts. He also served as associate director of San Diego County's North Coast Repertory (which, many will note, lies south of South Coast Repertory).

For his Laguna swan song, Barnicle is tackling Coward's enduring comedy, which first hit the Broadway stage 80 years ago in 1931. The playwright also performed in a cast that included Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier.

The play centers on a divorced couple who unwittingly book adjoining rooms while honeymooning with their new spouses — then reunite and flee together to Paris, only to be discovered by their jilted mates.

When asked why he chose "Private Lives" for his Laguna swan song, Barnicle had this to say:

"Why 'Private Lives'? I always wanted to direct a Coward play, (I've acted in a few) and this one has not only popular appeal, but a lot to say about irrepressible urges and how social institutions and mores, try as hard as they might, can't really reign them in. Some people live their lives too creatively to be fenced.

" 'Private Lives' toe-dances very dangerously on political correctness, and can still possibly shock the socially constricted, even though it was written more than 80 years ago. There hasn't been a local professional production in some time, and it's funny as hell. Ultimately, the funny part is what drew me, but I'm discovering very subtle social themes of personal freedom underneath the comedy.

"There's a mischievousness that's palpable — libertinism clashing with norms. We are still struggling with these issues on a daily basis. The play is a lot of things, but 'quaint' it is not."

Barnicle also had some thoughts, and memories, to share concerning his two decades as the playhouse's artistic director. He'll share those in next week's column.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

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