Enchanted April by Matthew Barber, from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim
"Secrets are like rust," They say
Tod Randolph as Rose Arnott; photo:
By J. Peter Bergman
When adapting a classic it is often wise to leave things as the original author intended them. Enchanted April, a somewhat timeless piece, is not a classic with which most people are well acquainted. It would seem that for this reason, and not for some more practical purpose, the author of this play, now on the mainstage of the Founder's Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, has chosen to rename eight of his nine characters and tamper with the timeline of the story as well. What he has not been able to do is change the heart of the tale and that's a most important point to remember.
More people are probably aware of the 1992 film version of the book starring Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright than recall the 1922 book that inspired it. Some will come with the visceral memory of that movie's emotional bundle and not pay attention to the details altered for a stage version. Others will be better prepared for what awaits them.
The Wilkins household has become the Wiltons. The Arbuthnots are known as the Arnotts. Lady Caroline Dester has changed her last name to Bramble. The irrascible, elderly Mrs. Fisher is now the even more testy Mrs. Graves and Thomas Briggs, their landlord - already renamed George for the film, has been redubbed Antony Wilding. As the playwright and the company clearly acknowledge the book and its author on the title page of the program and as the name of the play is identical to all of its predecessors these name changes seem a little bit self-indulgent and make no sense. But enough of all that. On to the play and its production.
Normi Noël has taken the large stage at the Founder's Theatre and turned it into a small series of intimate spaces in the first act, then expanded it to its full grandeur for the second act. She has placed her initially pathetic women in small contained spaces, ones they build themselves in a half-light that separates the scenes. These are their tiny prisons, the places they need to break free of in their quest for enchantment and providence. The concept works wonderfully throughout the act from two isolated places in a women's club in London to the parlors of elderly widows and the tight compartment of a second-class train carriage hurrying through light-restricting tunnels en route to the Italian Riviera. When the second act's colorful piazza is revealed the play takes on the sense of "paradiso" that heroine Lotty Wilton keeps crying out about, and shouting about, and literally singing at the top of her voice. Rachel Gordon's scenic design works wonderfully for Noël's concept.
As Lotty, Diane Prusha has the role of a lifetime. This is her 28th season with the company and she has played practically everything and everybody in that time. This is almost a culminating role, one that allows her the freedom to be mad in her clarity and sanity, sane in her wildness and abandon, and clear in her comprehension of everything: every nuance, and every thought of every other character on the stage. She carries it all brilliantly, from the simple telling of a fable at the start of the play through the characteristic stereotyping of others that escape her lips at the end. She is never apart from her character for an instant. She is the play.
Or Prusha would be "the play" if it weren't for Tod Randolph as Rose Arnott, her partner in crime, so to speak. Randolph's Rose is literally a bundle of nerves. She never has a single reaction to anyone else's ideas; she has a mixture of reactions, a tangle of emotions. All this plays out in her voice, her eyes, her chin and her hands. She is rarely ever still, hardly ever incapable of stealing the moment. That she plays so well with others is a tribute to an actress with both nerves of steel and a constant respect for her company. There is no doubt that this excellent player is a part of the tapestry here and not just the highly polished fringe on its border. She is simply divine and her emotional transition in this play is a joy to behold.
Elizabeth Ingram's Mrs. Graves is haughty, imperious and charmless until she is charmed. Then she blossoms into the grandmother we all know, love and miss in our lives. As Lady Caroline, Corinna May is lovely to look at in her gorgeous costumes designed by Govane Lohbauer. She is sweet to hear and sad to watch. Her character harbors secrets and as Lotty's husband loves to say, "secrets are like rust." If there is any one untrue note in the writing, it is Caroline's willingness to cover another's mistakes and her own kindness to fools who betray her trust. No matter how well May played her part, I couldn't buy all that sweetness from someone like Lady Caroline.
The men in this play almost don't count, but as it is their role, jointly, to inspire these women they must be accounted for. Malcolm Ingram is perfect as Mellersh Wilton, right down to his monocle on a chain and his unchained attitude. Seth Powers is romantic and appealing as Wilding, a true hero in the making. Dave Demke is slightly out of his element as Frederick Arnott. Rachel Siegel rounds out the cast in a hilarious turn as Costanza, the Italian maid.
A play such as this one deserves to be seen, more for its principal players than for its message. This lengthy playing season gives its potential audience ample opportunity to sit through the two and three-quarter hours of this particular play. So very much of it is good that a few name changes and a time-crunched plot can be forgiven. Almost everything else of importance is still intact. So if Mellersh is correct in his statement about secrets, this play which harbors very few won't be needing any rust-remover in the foreseeable future.
◊ 04 June 2006 ◊
Malcolm Ingram as Mellersh Wilton; photo:
Dave Demke as Frederick Arnott and Corinna May as Lady Caroline; photo:
Plays in repertory through September 2. Tickets are $18 to $54. The play runs 2 3/4 hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call 413-637-3353. For more information on the season go to their website at www.shakespeare.org.