Shakespeare and Company, vision-turned-reality of the indefatigable Tina Packer (Artistic Director and Unstoppable Force), is barreling along in its 29th season with a happy blend of classical, contemporary and premiere theatre works. The site, a magnificent thirty-plus acres in the heart of the Berkshires, reveals an ongoing dream-in-process: the main stage building appears complete, a tented lawn space hopes to evolve into The Rose Project (anyone reading this with millions adding up to $20 million will be warmly received), and several derelict buildings, rooftops collapsing and gaping with holes, would prefer restoration to demolition. Seeing this all with the focused gaze of Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Publicity Director and Company Member), helped in no small part by a glorious day that makes Lenox the envy of all who visit, was an ideal introduction. I should add that I attended many productions at their former site, The Mount, but this was my first visit to the larger, company-owned compound. My purpose: to see their current production of Enchanted April.
The play, adapted by Matthew Barber from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, examines the lives of four women who struggle to know themselves and grasp a manageable future in England shortly after the First World War. The men in their lives – three are present and one is recently deceased – add considerable confusion to the equation.
Two women, Lotty and Rose, rent a house in Italy and, in order to secure the money required, advertise for two more tenants. Hence, Lady Caroline Bramble and Mrs. Graves complete the quartet. They swear off the company of men and plunge into the adventure of a lifetime. The first act introduces the women and how they meet one another. To a lesser degree, the act also shows us the role of men in their lives. The second act, set in the Italian villa, reveals the world of possibilities in the daring escape from reality.
Diane Prusha and Tod Randolph are deeply touching as the two central women. The first act provides them with a series of careful, unforced exchanges with their husbands and each other. Humour emerges honestly and their separate struggles strike deep and painful chords. Corinna May and Elizabeth Ingram, as Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves, have less to work with and are, therefore, at an emotional remove.
The play’s second act, however, is weak and fails to sustain or develop the tension established in the first half. To re-work that old slogan for the Cunard Lines, “Much more than half the fun is getting there”. What begins as an intimate personal story devolves into a patchwork of lives hinted at rather than revealed with much insight, and farce rears its unwelcome head as the dialogue, delicate at its best, descends to cliché and the improbable.
Lotty inviting her husband to join her at the villa suggests that the woman cannot exist without her spouse, a prig who fails to allow his wife any space for herself. When Rose’s husband appears and we learn that he is having it off with Lady Caroline Bramble, the coincidence strains credulity, but even this is manageable compared to the total non-moment when wife and mistress appear together and absolutely nothing happens. Rose makes a passing reference to a dead child, but the subject is dropped and we add it to the list of clichés quickly dissipating the play’s power. Lady Caroline is a secret drinker, an alcoholic perhaps, but she meets the young man who owns the villa and they scamper offstage where, presumably, life is sweeter. The cantankerous Mrs. Graves, a scowl in dark clothing, derides all and sundry until, late in the play, she is transformed into a British marshmallow.
I don’t know the novel and I’ve not seen the recent film adaptation, but the playwright’s juggling of lives and intersections is faulty and the results are unsatisfying.
On the other hand, the production is smart, tasteful and, until two or three inept bits of farce staging in the second half (flying teacups and bare bums delight the audience but, to my perhaps curmudgeonly eyes, they also trade humanity for pandering), well aware of its script’s shortcomings. Normi Noel stages the play with precision and choreographs scene changes with style. What she has yet to achieve is a more varied rhythm and pace throughout. The multi-scene play, cinematic in style, demands greater momentum which would, perhaps, help to distract from the plodding final scenes.
The women are more impressive than the men, and this may be in part due to the fact that the playwright likes the women and is entirely uninterested in the men, why they behave as they do and why the women choose to endure their self-adoration at such high personal cost.
Enchanted April wants to overwhelm us as the Italian seashore overwhelms its characters. The playwright wants us to believe that people can change in substantial ways and for longer than a 2-week vacation. But until the characters are set free from the restricted plot line, the play is a minor achievement that can be added to the list of stock characters forced to inhabit stock situations.