Those with a taste for a light summer sorbet will want to find their way to the Festival Theatre and Jackie Maxwell’s marvellously crafted version (penned by Matthew Barber) of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, Enchanted April.
The tale of four variously troubled women abandoning their rain-drenched, miserable existence in London for a month soaking up sunshine in a for-rent Italian castle is the stuff of comedic possibilities of all stripes.
Act I artfully sets the stage as the two married women of the disparate quartet find each other then enlist a pair of both-ends-of-the-female-spectrum, single, cost-sharing companions to join them for “no men allowed” relaxation, reflection and rebirth. Their “befores and afters” drive the plot just as surely as the train makes its way to the sunny region of Genoa.
Once there (the transition from dreary economy coach to the splendour of the wisteria laden castle is a visual tour de force and vrai showstopper due to the ever-inventive creativity of set designer William Schmuck and the ideally lit magic lanterns from lighting wizard Kevin Lamotte), Act II threatens to become an unabated riot of hilarity, but the writing can’t keep pace with the talented cast and Maxwell’s deft employment of everything at her disposal.
From her first entrance in the lush seaside digs, Sharry Flett’s larger-than-life take on the long-serving, take-no-prisoners servant, Constanza, sets the yuks bar high. Visions of the Shaw’s first presentation of Ferenc Molnár’s The President (cross-reference below) are rekindled even as the first drops of tears-in-your-eyes glee begin to dry. Yet before long, too much Italian spoils the broth and drags down the momentum.
Donna Belleville holds court with a degree of pomposity that is totally at one with the largely dour Mrs. Graves, yet her inevitable transition from She Who Must Be Obeyed to “stickless” favourite grandmother is too-saccharine by half in Barber’s hands—much more effective was his spot-on depiction of a real nutcracker in manner and deed.
As Caroline Bramble, Marla McLean turns in a wide-ranging depiction of the sudden widow, whose beauty is her strongest card but the suits that follow are as shallow as the men in society who feel it their duty to take a mistress—no matter what their nom de plume might allow them to—temporarily, of course—get away with. Sadly, the inevitable dénouement (Patrick Galligan playing Frederick Arnott does his level best in the “gotcha” sequence, but isn’t provided the lines or actions to do anything but live happily ever after: with his wife!) misses its mark.
Nonetheless, moments earlier the actual unveiling is a 30-second bit of bare-assed staging that ought to go into the Shaw Festival’s Comedy Hall of Fame. A pair of literal dressing downs from—until then—stuffed shirt Mellersh Wilton (Jeff Meadows happily steals the show with his saucy cheeks) reignites the laugh track (don’t miss the hat-in-the-crack attempt at modesty), but there’s not enough fodder to keep the sides splitting in a sustainable way. (One pines for the likes of Blair Williams to bring his madcap physical comedy talents into the mix.)
Gluing the storyline together is the astonishingly young landlord, Antony Wilding. Kevin McGarry devours the part with great skill and sense of timing, most notably wooing Mrs. Graves into her first blush in decades. Yet, the initial encounter with flask toting Belle of the Ball belies its beachside resolution as the final “secrets are like mist” revelations come home to roost.
Looking and acting like a Madonna in her own right, Rose Arnott’s transformation to a confident, whole woman is ideally achieved by Tara Rosling’s subtle characterization and Schmuck’s persona-reinforcing costume designs.
Cut from a different cloth but heading for a similar “afters,” Moya O’Connell lights up the stage with her unbridled enthusiasm for the part and infectious delivery: “Marvellous” captures her performance to a T.
This production makes Barber’s account look and sound better than it reads and is worth a peek even if the source material’s potential has yet to be fully realized for the stage. JWR