Sunday, November 07, 2004

Enchanted April (Cleveland Play House)

Enchanting 'ENCHANTED APRIL' at the Cleveland Play House

In ‘ENCHANTED April,’ the romantic comedy by Matthew Barber, four mismatched but equally unhappy English women decide to vacation together in Italy. During their sojourn in the Mediterranean spring, they rediscover laughter and romance, and learn new truths about themselves.

Barber adapted the play from the best-selling novel of the same title by Elizabeth von Arnim (1866 –1941). This play version was preceded by a 1925 Broadway production which lasted but 32 performances. Movie audiences are probably familiar with the story from the popular 1992 film version which starred Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina, Josie Lawrence and Polly Walker.

Like the novel and the film, the play with its predictable happy ending, is easy to write off as a trite woman's story. However, von Arnim, besides focusing on the confusion of the women in the kirche-küsche-kinder society (church, kitchen, children) also manages to examine some broader unsettled feelings, feelings which are reflected by World War I, the expected role of women, and the societal attitudes of the time. The combination of humor blended with sadness and confusion explains the story's appeal.

The CPH production's chief pleasures derive from the wonderful performances of the women in the cast.

Blake Lindsley and Roxanna Hope, portraying two London housewives desperately in need of a little enchantment to offset their joyless daily lives with husbands who have proved disappointing, perfectly capture their characters. Lindsley as Lotty, a woman who has been described by her husband as “a hummingbird who never alights,” is a bundle of determination and joy. We see her blossom before our eyes as she finds beauty and delight in life. She truly shows us what happens “to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine” and find it. Arnott, as Rose, the wife of a philandering husband and has lost a child, finds herself turning inward to escape reality. Her performance allows the audience to experience the character’s recapturing joy as she finds herself in the glow of the Italian sunshine. These are two fine, fine performances.

Monette Magrath as the socialite Caroline, is compelling as she transforms from a cold oft-hurt woman who has attracted men by her wealth and beauty, but has not found emotionally satisfying love, into a real and feeling person. Jill Tanner, as the up-tight, rule-oriented Mrs. Clayton Graves, a London matron, who refuses to let life intrude on the past she prefers, is perfectly cast. Her ramrod straight posture, pronunciation, and use of a walking stick make her a potential villain. But, as expected in stories such as this, Tanner, true to the character, convincingly changes her physical mannerisms and presence as the written character changes. Jayne Taini is absolutely perfect as the scene- stealing expressive and exasperated Italian housekeeper.

Curtis Billings as Antony, the artist and owner of the villa, is the only male who completely captures his character. He develops a person who is both charming and endearing. On the other hand, John Hines as Lotty’s solicitor husband Mellersh, tries too hard to create his up-tight role. His posturing and over-articulation create a caricature rather than a believable character. The same has to be said for Sean Haberle who fails to develop a believable being as Rose’s husband.

Director Michael Wilson has nicely combined the elements to give CPH a visually and theatrical quality production.

Scenic designer Tony Straiges deserves cudos for his wonderful visual concepts. The first act is staged in a series of stilted fragmented settings. These perfectly fit the mood of the characters. As with the story, the second act setting blossoms forth with a warm, enchanting exterior of a Tuscan castle, with brightly painted walls and masses of flowers. Straiges has created a place where psychological change can easily take place. Alejo Vietti's costumes work perfectly in aiding the transition from darkness to light, from restrained to unrestrained feelings. Rui Rita’s lighting help us to visualize the right moods.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I defy anyone who sees ‘ENCHANTED APRIL’ at the Cleveland Play House not to want to make immediate plans to go to Italy and rent a Tuscan villa. The Cleveland Play House is on a roll. This is their third outstanding production of the season.