Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2006
Enchanted April is a mediocre play based on a charming novel being given a far better production than it deserves at Shakespeare & Company.
While this production is enjoyable and features fine performances in the leading roles by Diane Prusha and Tod Randolph, I encourage you to take the time to read the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim* as well. Matthew Barber, who has penned this latest stage adaptation of von Arnim’s best known work, has made some obvious and avoidable errors in reshaping the work for the theatre. Yes, I know this adaptation was nominated for the Tony for Best Play, but in my mind that nomination was based on the strength of von Arnim’s source material and not on Barber’s unsteady retooling. This was, after all, Barber’s first work for the theatre. First and worst don’t rhyme for nothing.
My first reaction was, “Well, who would have expected a MAN to be any good at adapting this story in the first place?” And I have a feeling there is some truth in that sexist statement. Von Arnim’s tale is about women taking a vacation from the men in their lives, rediscovering themselves, and bringing what they have learned back into their ongoing lives and relationships. Barber brings the men on too soon and gives them too much attention, to the detriment of the women, whose stories are thereby weakened.
I highly recommend that you read the novel, entitled The Enchanted April, which is available for free online at Project Gutenberg and other sites, as well as being readily available in paperback and at local libraries. It is a perfect summer read, and you will understand so much more about the women, especially the characters of Rose and Caroline, than you will from the play.
In April of 1921 von Arnim, then 55, widowed from her first marriage, divorced from her second, and being wooed by a handsome young man 30 years her junior, rented a medieval castello at Portofino, Italy with two other women. There she began writing The Enchanted April which appeared in bookstores in October of the following year. An instant success, the story has been filmed three times (a silent version in 1925 and two “talkies” in 1935 and 1992) and adapted for the stage twice, in 1925 by Kane Campbell, and in 2002 by Barber.
Enchanted April begins on a dreary rainy day in London when drab British housewife Charlotte “Lotty” Wilton (Prusha) sees a newspaper ad for an Italian castle to rent for the month of April. An implusive soul, Lotty immediately convinces an acquaintance, Rose Arnott (Randolph), to pool their resources and rent the castle together from the handsome young (and single) Antony Wilding (Seth Powers). The castle comes complete with a fiesty Italian cook named Costanza (Rachel Siegel). When their resources fall short of what is necessary, they advertise for two other female companions, and Lady Caroline Bramble (Corinna May) and Mrs. Graves (Elizabeth Ingram) join the party. Both Lotty and Rose have marriages troubled by the kind of ordinary tragedies that mar many such arrangements. Lotty’s husband Mellersh (Malcolm Ingram) is a stuffy old lawyer, and Rose’s husband Frederick (Dave Demke) writes biographies of racy women under the pseudonym Florian Ayres, a practice of which, although lucrative, Rose does not approve. His success as an author has given Frederick a life outside of their marriage at the very time when that relationship is under tremendous strain.
As we get to know them it becomes clear that Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves, both widows, are still struggling with the ghosts of their past relationships. But Lotty remains convinced that the castle, San Salvatore, will work its enchantment on all of them to restore them and their relationships to fullness and joy.
This production is directed by Normi Noël, a Shakespeare & Company veteran who has directed many of Dennis Krausnick’s fine stage adaptations of Edith Wharton’s work over the years. Von Arnim (1866-1942), a contemporary of Wharton (1862-1937), wrote in a similar style, and Noel’s success with the latter’s work seemed to make her a natural choice for this assignment. But here her direction seems plodding and dry. The show clocks in at nearly three hours and tighter direction could have shaved 10-15 minutes off, making the whole experience sprightlier and more enjoyable.
Another stumbling block here is the actresses’ ages. Prusha, Randolph, and May are all too old for their characters. Prusha and Randolph compensate with luminous and delightful performances. While neither woman fits society’s narrow definition of beauty, by the end of the play Prusha and Randolph are the most beautiful women on the stage, appearing radiant with renewed love and the energy it brings. May does fit society’s image, but her performance is so still and contained that her age shows. Lady Caroline is in her late 20’s, a young widow whose angst and loneliness should reflect the restlessness of youth and love cut short by tragedy.
Elizabeth Ingram is supposed to look old, and actually seems a little young and feisty for her character, the elderly and curmudgeonly widow Graves. I wished that she and Noël had played up Mrs. Graves’ reliance on her stick more in the early scenes so that when she discards and forgets it in the end the transformation would be more obvious and revealing.
I enjoyed Malcolm Ingram’s foppish monocle-clad Mellersh (what a name!), but I was not impressed with Demke or Powers. Powers reminded me of the eye-candy my soap opera trots out, hoping the audience will be so impressed with a strong jaw and a handsome set of pecs that they won’t notice that the poor man can’t act. That is an unusual sensation to have a Shakespeare & Company, where the craft of acting is valued far above mere good looks.
Rattling away in Italian, Siegel made herself clearly understood at all times, even to a non-Italian speaker like me. This is a fun periferal role, and Siegel, in her Shakespeare & Company debut, makes the most of it.
The last weak link in this production is the Founders’ Theatre itself. I confess that I never could manage to imagine this show staged in that space. Every time I imagined the opening night I saw it taking place at Spring Lawn or in the salon at The Mount, with the French doors flung open to the glorious view. But I knew that the reality would find me at the Founders’ and I was interested to see what accommodations would be made to make the space more intimate.
For their three intimate shows this season – Enchanted April, Martha Mitchell Calling, and No Background Music – the company has decided to limit the seats that can be occupied, thereby limiting the size of the audience. The seats are still there, but they are not selling tickets for them. Unfortunately this makes the theatre feel bigger rather than smaller. All those empty seats look forlorn and the small audience, carefully grouped around the three-quarter thrust stage, feels like an isolated island of humanity and light inside of a dark cavern.
The Founders’ will be home to all of Shakespeare & Company’s major productions, this summer. The four shows will be performed in rotating repertory, meaning that at the height of the season several different shows will be performed on the same day. There is not a lot of backstage storage space at the Founders’, and tech crews will often have as little as two hours between shows to strike and store one set and install the next, so each set must be small and portable. It is hard to create a small and portable Italian castle, but scenic designer Rachel Gordon has done her level best. The second act set is pretty and evocative of the beauty of the Italian coast in April. She also does creative things with a few tables and chairs in the first act, which consists of a series of short scenes in a London ladies’ club, a Hampstead church, a railway car, and various homes in England.
Costume designer Govane Lohbauer never fails to impress me with her ability to evoke distant places and times using quite modern fabrics and colors. Her costumes make each lady look her very best (or her very worst when that is called for) and yet the garments are obviously comfortable, freeing the performers to concentrate on their work and not on their clothing. Lady Caroline is supposed to be a 1920’s fashion plate, and every ensemble Lohbauer has designed for May is more spectacular than the one that came before, culminating in a gorgeous bronze beaded flapper dress for the final scene.
Despite its weaknesses, Enchanted April is well worth seeing for the charm of Von Arnim’s tale and the funny and moving performances by Prusha and Randolph. The show is like a light soufflé that fell slightly in transit between the oven and the table. It is still a nourishing and tasty meal, and just right for the season.
Enchanted April runs in repertory through September 2 at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs just under three hours with one intermission and would be enjoyed by ages 10 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
* The author often referred to as Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette Beauchamp and called May. Her first novel, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, was published anonymously in 1898. Twenty-one books followed and were signed “By the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden” and later simply “By Elizabeth”. The surname “von Arnim” often associated with her comes from that of her first husband Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin. She is also known as Lady Russell. Count von Arnim died in 1910, and in 1914 she fell in love with John Francis Stanley Russell, second Earl Russell, (1865–1931) Bertrand Russell’s older brother. They were married from 1916-1919.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006