Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2003.

Peter Shaffer’s comedy “Lettice and Lovage” is about a woman whose mother ran a Shakespearean company. Tina Packer is a woman who runs a Shakespearean company. I sat not too far from her son the night I attended, and I thought what a unique view he had of all the proceedings – a man whose mother runs a Shakespearean company watching her play a woman whose mother ran a Shakespearean company. Grand theatre in a small town is very interesting.

Tina Packer calls this play a farce. I am not sure that I agree. It is certainly very funny – at times silly, at times slapstick, but never quite farcical in my estimation. But that is a minor point on which to quibble. Packer was born to play Lettice Douffet, and it is a great treat to see her do it, especially in the intimate quarters of the Spring Lawn Theatre. Poor Diane Prusha, as Charlotte “Lotte” Schoen, is stuck playing second fiddle to greatness, but she too has some lovely moments – notably when she goes into a psychosomatic panic/asthma attack over Packer’s cat (the cat that plays Packer’s cat in the play is Packer’s cat because no self-respecting feline would allow him or herself to be carried on stage by a complete stranger).

The cat, Isis, gave a tender performance as Felina, Queen of Sorrows, the evening I attended, although I understand there was a show where she refused to go on and Packer had to soliloquize to a stuffed substitute. Isis is a pretty cat and obviously fond of Packer or she would not allow herself to suffer such an indignity. I know my cat would turn up her nose at the role.

Another unlikely performer in this play is the Spring Lawn Mansion itself. The play opens with Lettice giving ever grander and more elaborate lectures on the staircase in the fictional Fustian House, one of the dullest of England’s stately homes. The sweeping curved stairway of Spring Lawn plays this role remarkably well. The audience is invited to stand out into the foyer for the first scene of the play (although there are a few seats available for those who need them) and watch Packer and the staircase evoke the glories of Tudor England – real or imagined – together. Other members of Shakespeare & Company mix and mingle with the real crowd as those attending Lettice’s tour.

After that the action moves back into the theatre proper with a scene in Lotte’s dreary Preservation Trust office, and then in Lettice’s cheap London flat fantastically decorated with props from her childhood touring France with her mother’s all-female Shakespearean troupe. The accoutrements of Lettice’s life may seem extreme to some, but living as I do in a theatrical family that keeps a fake arm in the same drawer with the good tablecloths, I can tell you it is not so far fetched.

Lettice Douffet loves – no that is too mild a word – lives the theatre, as does Tina Packer. Her personal passions translate well to the stage. Although I would guess Packer is in her sixties, once she takes the stage in a flowing red wig and a brilliantly blonde beard the merry twinkle in her eyes render her positively ageless. Andrew Borthwick-Leslie has a silly comic turn in the last scene as a repressed lawyer (I beg your pardon, Solicitor) who is finally completely caught up in Lettice’s life of history and drama, and finds he is more thrilled than embarrassed. Catherine Taylor-Williams plays an equally repressed British type – the anorexic, buttoned-up spinster secretary with little education and fewer brains – in an early scene.

I supposed my greatest complaint is with Shaffer’s script. It provides an excellent excuse for these performers, this cat, and this house to interact, but it is rather predictable and formulaic in that oh-so-wacky way television has trained us to expect. I enjoyed the laughs, and with a three-act, two-and-a-half hour show they certainly helped keep me awake and entertained, but I would have enjoyed them more if they had supported a more serious purpose than another when-I’m-an-old-lady-I-shall-wear-purple-carpe-diem-you-can’t-take-it-with-you slab of silliness. The last scene, with its wildly fabricated “accident” that lands Lotte in the hospital and Lettice nearly in jail, struck me as particularly unnecessary and stupid.

So, great performances, silly script, and chance to enjoy a grand house and a sweet cat (if she deigns to appear when you attend) – not a bad deal for holiday entertainment. I say go. I know I’m glad I did.

Lettice and Lovage runs through December 21 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two-and-a-half hours with two intermissions and will be enjoyed by ages 8 and up. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003

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