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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Ring Round the Moon
By Elyse Sommer
What about the star within that star, Jean Anouilh's gallic romance written as an escape from the bitter memories of World War II but edged with the darkness of a social order too cynical for untarnished fairy tales? The plot with its mistaken identities, misguided love affairs, and a wheelchair bound but still powerful old aristocrat and assorted house guests and servants provides similar comedic opportunities for a number of the actors who helped to make last year's revival of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest such a success. Topping that list, Christopher Innvar again demonstrates his ability to juggle two identical characters and create a distinctive personality for each. Carole Shelley gets yet another chance to show off her talent for portraying dagger -tongued dowagers (you may remember her as Wicked's Madame Morrible as well as Earnest's Lady Bracknell).
Like the Wilde comedy, Ring Round the Moon requires the actors to be surrounded with a splendidly designed production and thus makes this a fine showcase for the new theater. The designers and Barrington Stage regulars and new actors alike go all out, but Anouilh, though one of France's most successful playwrights, has never translated as successfully on American stages as Oscar Wilde -- or, for that matter George Bernard Shaw whose serio-comic house party plays Ring Round the Moon, first produced in 1947 as L'Invitation au Chateau, also brings to mind.
It's not easy to involve modern audiences in the games of artifice and illusion that play out among Anouilh's various would-be lovers. Without Wilde's notably quotable witticisms the set-up with its focus on two aristocratic, wealthy identical twins (Innvar) with unidentical personalities -- sweet, sappy and madly in love Frederic, cynical, manipulative and incapable of love Hugo -- tends to be too labored, no matter how hard the actors work to make a feast out of the unfolding web of deceit and disillusion. This explains why Ring Round the Moon has had far fewer and far less well-received American productions than anything by Wilde or Shaw.
The savvy Ms. Boyd has succeeded better than most directors (including the one who helmed its only New York revival at Lincoln Center -- linked below) in overcoming the problematic slow spots, especially during the first act. Besides bringing together this splendid cast she's moved the action from 1912 to 1928 which allows the introduction of some jazzy Tango and Charleston dance riffs (bravo, Stephen Terrell). Karl Eigsti's airy conservatory with five doors for the farcical entrances and exits is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is functional and Elizabeth Flauto has everyone looking gorgeous and right out of a 1928 fashion magazine.
The scheme cooked up by Hugo involves inviting Isabelle (Ginifer King, lovely to look at and ultimately quite poignant), a poor but beautiful ballet dancer to pose as another guest, Romainville's (John C. Vennema) niece and cause Frederic to fall in love with her and consequently out of love with Diana. Others entangled in this sure to fail web include Lady Dorothy India (Christa Scott-Reed as flaming a flapper as one could wish for), her secret lover Patrice (Mark H. Dold another welcome Earnest veteran), Isabelle's ambitious mother (Debra Jo Rupp a scene stealing Barrington Stage newcomer) and Madame Desmermortes' much bossed about companion Capulat (an endearingly amusing Tandy Cronyn). Naturally, there's also a butler (played with delightful decorum and arched eyebrows by Robert Zuckerman). Thanks to Capulat's inability to keep a secret, Hugo's plan unravels and only Madame Desmermorte's acting as something of a good fairy gets everything sorted out.
The production is at its comic best whenever one of the twins exits one door and you know the other one will soon enter through another. There are also some priceless interchanges between Madame Desmermortes and Capulat at the top of the second act (as when the romantic spinster's reminiscence of being twenty and claim to a still beating heart is greeted with a dismissive "You're a nice girl, Capulat, but -- you know-- this as well as I do -- you're plain and no one who is plain can ever have been twenty.")
What about Anouilh's more serious underlying concerns about the emptiness of class distinctions, the bigotry of those born to wealth and the outsiders scrambling to be accepted into a world that's not really worth the struggle? These are most successfully meshed in the final act's confrontation between Messerschmann, the Polish born Jew whose wealth has gained him and his daughter access to this noninclusive social milieu.
The brief dancing sequences that enhance this production inevitably make one wish that Julianne Boyd might have chosen something in that genre at which she excels for her debut production. That said, it was a thrill to be present at the company's final landing in a real state of the art theater. And you may be sure that there will be lots singing and dancing on its spacious stage in the future -- in fact, to celebrate the luxury of not having to end its season to accommodate its high school home's schedule, a staged concert version of Mame is already scheduled during the leaf peeping season (October 4 to 15) and a full production of West Side Story for Summer 2007.
Review of Barrington Stage's summer 2005 production of The Importance of Being Earnest
Ring Round the Moon (Lincoln Center)