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Review | ‘Enchanted April’ from the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “Enchanted April” falls in line with some of the Midtown theater company’s strongest work and, like many shows at the MET, is sightly ragged, a little out of balance, blemished with small imperfections but performed with integrity.

Linda Ade Brand, a director with an impressive track record, has assembled a talented group of actors, several of whom are making their MET debuts. All are committed to bringing Matthew Barber’s play about Brits in Italy to life.

Barber’s two-act piece is a romantic comedy taken from Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1920s novel about four disparate women who rejuvenate themselves by fleeing gloomy, rain-drenched England for a holiday at a picturesque Italian villa. The basic arc — repressed northern Europeans literally and figuratively rediscovering their libidos in the Mediterranean sun — feels extremely familiar, and not just because the novel was the basis of a successful 1992 film.

No, English-speaking writers have been discovering themselves in Italy, it seems, for hundreds of years, much as American novelists have turned to Mexico for the supposedly purifying effects of hot-blooded Latin culture.

Still, Barber’s play is a delicately constructed piece that balances poignancy and broad comedy and, without belaboring the point, colors the seemingly frivolous humor with the long, grim shadow of World War I.

Lotte Wilton (Katie Gilchrist) sets the story in motion when she sees a newspaper ad for an Italian vacation spot that promises wisteria, olive groves and a beach. Without bothering to consult her husband, a priggish solicitor named Mellersh (William Grey Warren), Lotte recruits the depressed Rose Arnot (Silvia Stoner), whom she meets at the ladies’ club.

Rose and Lotte are a study in contrasts — Rose is reserved and literal-minded while Lotte is given to visions and exuberant outbursts — but what they have in common are insensitive husbands. Rose’s spouse, a poet named Frederick (John Robert Paisley) who publishes under the ridiculous pseudonym Florian Ayers, is a supercilious philanderer with a taste for jazz and gin.

Together Rose and Lotte recruit two other women to help defray the cost of renting the old villa — Lady Caroline Bramble (Danelle Drury), an icy hedonist who’s been unlucky in love, and Mrs. Graves (Marilyn Lynch), a crotchety senior citizen who’s outlived her contemporaries.

The first act is set entirely in England and establishes the key relationships and characters, including Antony Wilding (Coleman Crenshaw), an English painter who owns the villa. Act 2 unfolds in Italy, where remarkable metamorphoses take place and, through some contrived plot mechanics, Lotte and Rose are joined by their husbands. A vivid comic character is Costanza (Nancy Marcy), the villa’s chief cook and bottle-washer.

The performances are rich and varied. Gilchrist executes a nice piece of work as Lotte, a flighty, charming instigator who delights in upsetting the status quo. Stoner’s Rose is emotionally strait-jacketed in the first act but becomes fully human in Italy.

Lynch turns in a superior comic performance — big but precise — as Mrs. Graves. And Drury, an actress I hadn’t seen before, makes a vivid impression as the cool Lady Caroline, a woman who hides her pain so effortlessly that she seems unapproachable until she, like the others, eventually loses her mask.

Crenshaw delivers a nicely understated performance as Wilding. In the early going Warren’s take on Mellersh seems too cartoonish, but in in the second act what seems to be an overly broad turn meshes into the play quite nicely — in part because he is matched by Marcy, who seems to be having great fun as the Italian-speaking Costanza. Paisley seems to struggle a bit, as if he could never quite get a fix on Frederick, and the second-act reconciliation between Frederick and Rose rings false.

But this play does work its will on the viewer. The atmosphere in Act 2 ultimately becomes so intoxicating that some viewers may want to join the characters on stage and breath in the wisteria and take evening strolls among the gardens.

The heady atmosphere owes a lot to Warren Deckert’s lighting, but chief among the production’s virtues are the costume designs of Nicole Sukolics-Christianson, whose clothes in Act 1 — corseted, restrictive, seemingly colorless — give way to vivid sensual and free-flowing outfits in the second act.

“Enchanted April” runs through April 23. Call 816-569-3226 or go to www.metkc.org.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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