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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
In Matthew Barber's adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim's post World War I novel, Enchanted April, that transformation is a given. The villa on the Italian coast, with its abundance of wisteria, works its enchantment on not just Lotty and Rose, but their fellow housemates, the lovely Lady Bramley (Corinna May) and the crotchety Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ingram) -- as well as their spouses (Malcolm Ingram/Mellersh Wilton and David Demke/Frederick Arnott).
While flavored with postwar melancholy, Barber's playscript emphasizes the comic aspects of how these disparate Londoners end up in this Italiante Shangri-La, which makes Enchanted April apt and enjoyable summer theater fare. While the Springlawn Mansion, which was home to Shakespeare & Company's smaller, more intimate productions until its sale last year, would have been an ideal setting for this production, the company is going through its own transforming summer. Until a second theater is available the company is juggling its schedule to put on ALL its productions at the Founders Theater and Enchanted April, is the first summer 2006 production, to see if the larger theater can create the intimacy called for by the second stage plays.
Since the company doesn't focus on elaborate scenery for any of its plays, its directors are well equipped to juggle multiple plays on the same stage, and Normi Noel and her creative team are no exception. The aura of both the London and Italian scenes are suggested with just enough props (bravo to scenic designer Rachel Gordon) and a variety of beautiful costumes by Govane Lohbauer.
The real pleasures of the production, as was true of the Broadway version I saw several seasons back, come from the performances, especially by the two actresses whose characters set the "enchanted" holiday in motion, Diane Prusha and Tod Randolph. Though Prusha's Lotty and Ingram's Mellersh are on the very far side of the age 30 and 32 the play's character notes call for, they play their parts with great style and humor. Their performances downplay the fact that it would be easier to believe the romantic possibilities and change by a couple still young enough not to be too set in their ways. Tod Randolph seems just right for Rose Arnott's specified age (38) though David Demke comes off as too young and one note to play her 45-year-old husband.
To avoid having the play lose its intimacy by darkening the balcony sections of the theater, the stage is ringed by just one level of seats on three sides. This works pretty well though there's no way to completely avoid the sense of a half-filled theater.
Since everything I said about the Broadway production of Enchanted April still applies, I'm including that review herewith. Just substitute the S&C actors for the ones listed therein. Also picture Constanza, the maid, sticking to Italian instead of pidgin English -- and rest assured, that you don't have to know Italian to get Constanza's (Rachel Siegel) meaning any more than you need to know French to understand what's going on in the all-in-French scene in the current Broadway hit, The History Boys.
And if a trip to Italy seems too far to travel for a transforming summer experience, come visit the Berkshires. You'll find plenty of enchanting vistas -- plus music, dance and theater in beautiful settings like the Founders Theater to give you a fresh perspective on life.
--Review of Enchanted April Broadway production
As I write this review, the trees in the street outside my living room window have burst into blossom and it's easy and enticing to identify with the spirit of renewal that permeates this new incarnation of old-fashioned romantic comedy. Well, almost new -- it began life in Hartford in 2000 and was preceded by a 1925 adaptation that had a meager 32-performance run. If it feels more like a revival than an original play, it's because Elizabeth Von Arnim's 1921 best-selling and still in print novel (you can get a free reading copy at Project Gutenberg) from which Matthew Barber has fashioned the playscript was made into a popular film starring Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina, Josie Lawrence and Polly Walker in 1991 (another film version dates back to 1925).
Like the novel and the film, the play with its facile message and predictable happy ending is easy to write off as a woman's story. However, Ms. Van Arnim, besides focusing on the confusion of two women with one foot in the old kirche-küsche-kinder society (church, kitchen, children) also managed to dip a toe into the broader unsettled feelings engendered by World War I. It is the idea of an uplifting experience to erase the sadness and confusion in the wake of wars and major social changes that perhaps best explains the story's enduring appeal.
Though Enchanted April: the play, precludes the panoramic Italian vistas of the 1991 Miramax film, it is soaked in enough atmosphere to convey the restorative effect of a sun-soaked Italian holiday on the lives of four Englishwomen -- not to mention the two husbands involved and the villa's owner. The production's chief pleasures, however, derive from the terrific performances of the ensemble, headed by Jayne Atkinson and Molly Ringwald as Lotty Wilton and Rose Arnott, the two London housewives desperately in need of a little enchantment to offset their joyless daily lives with husbands who have proved disappointing though for different reasons. Mellersh Wilton (Michael Cumpsty) is Lotty's pompous and bossy solicitor spouse. Frederick Arnott (Daniel Gerroll) has abandoned poetry to write historical romances under the pseudonym Florian Ayers, a career change which the pious Rose would hate even more than she already does if she realized that it has abetted his roving eye.
We don't get to the Tuscany castle pictured on the scrim curtain until the second act. The leisurely paced, London-based first act gets off to an amusing start with a soliloquy by Lotty which explains why she was drawn to the London Times "advert" for the rental of seacost villa for the month of April. A more seasoned playwright would have trimmed the rest of this act since it's mainly a set-up for Lotty and Rose, who belong to the same church and women's club but have never spoken, to become acquainted, follow up on the ad and enlist two co-renters to share expenses: Lady Caroline (Dagmara Dominczyk), the aloof flapper who, like Rose, harbors a tragic secret); and Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ashley), an autocratic older woman with a manner that seems immune to warming.
Since it is Lotty and Rose who instigate the life-changing holiday, Atkinson and Ringwald can be viewed as the leading characters. Indeed Atkinson's optimistic flightiness and Ringwald's mixture of prim restraint and submerged sunnier soul make for a delicious point-counterpoint pairing. When they meet Antony Wilding (Michael Hayden), their future landlord and he offers them tea -- "a choice of plain English black, for the more daring, a Moroccan blend called Indiscreet" -- you know Rose is going to stick to the plain English Black and Lotty's going to go for the "more daring" blend. These expert performances, as well as the excellent support from the rest of the cast, not the shift from wet and rainy London to sunny Italy, that provide the enchantment promised by the title.
Elizabeth Ashley is delightfully imperious as the dowager who refuses to let life intrude on the past she prefers -- though Barber rather overdoes the shtik about her walking stick which ultimately serves as a conclusion to an introductory anecdote about a wooden stick taking root. Dagmara Dominczyk invests the hard-drinking, jaded young aristocrat with a nice ethereal quality. Daniel Gerroll and Michael Cumpsty, whose arrival at the women's idyll makes the comedy veer towards farce, manage to convince us, as well as Rose and Lotty, that they are husbands worth keeping. Cumpsty, especially, has a grand old time in a scene that has him desperately trying to avoid first full frontal and then rear nudity.
Michael Hayden is charming as the landlord and, of course, no country house comedy would be complete without a maid whose every entrance threatens to steal the show. Patricia Conolly's constantly present pidgin English spouting Constanza is no exception.
Everyone portrays a traditional stereotype, as the play itself epitomizes the ladies' matinee theatrical entertainment of a by-gone era. As directed by Michael Wilson, it all has the feel of sunshine and wisteria with just enough evidence of the underlying tensions that prompted these Londoners to seek the warmth not just of sun, but of loving and being loved. Jess Goldstein's costumes abet their transition from darkness to light, restrained to unrestrained feelings.
The secrets of Rose and Frederick's marital woes and Lady Caroline's I want-to-be-alone pose, the obvious longing of everyone to feel more in touch with the world and each other are all gossamer transparent. It won't generate deep thoughts to keep you awake -- but the good acting and "comfort food" story will keep you engaged throughout the two hours plus that it takes for the enchantment of Italy to make friendships and love blossom.