Matthew Barber’s Enchanted April is a wonderful and genuinely affecting little confection set in London (and Italy) shortly after World War One. The era is important because while the soldiers fought abroad, women were obliged to take on traditionally masculine roles at home. Massive casualties created a surplus of young, independent females, which contributed to the modern flapper movement of the 1920s. Universal suffrage in the UK wasn’t far behind.
Two proper, middle class ladies have little in common except empty marriages that have depleted any sense of meaning and enchantment in their lives. Their husbands, a solicitor (Mellersh Wilton) and a novelist (Frederick Arnott), are fixated on advancing their careers. Neither man can fathom their dutiful wives being discontent making appearances or spending idol time sipping tea at the local social club.
The effervescent and chatty Lotty Wilton (Rebecca Wallace) comes across an advertisement listing a castle for rent on the Italian coast that offers “wisteria and sunshine.” Convinced that a holiday away from their spouses would be the perfect tonic for their mutual malaise, she persuades the pious and reticent Rose Arnott (Lorie Goulart) to join her wild escapade.
Their husbands would undoubtedly disapprove and not support their bold adventure, so they need to solicit two others to help defray the cost. They recruit the prim and aristocratic Mrs. Graves, and a beautiful, young socialite, Lady Caroline Bramble, to accompany them on their getaway vacation.
The moods are heightened by the understated but effective three-tiered set design by Richard T. Orlando, complemented by subtle lighting (Sarah Ashley Armes) and sound design (Nick Ferraro). All elements coalesce to highlight the stark contrast between the rain drenched dreariness of the British winter and the warm twilight hues of a Roman spring.
Sometimes one has the good fortune to encounter a performance that transcends anything that’s on the written page. Of course, the savvy casting and directing acumen of Meredith King has much to do with it. But most of the credit must go to Ms. Wallace, who imbues Lotty with an ebullience of spirit that’s utterly captivating. There isn’t a false note in her spot-on portrayal of a highly intuitive woman whose unwavering belief in her “paradiso” serves to inspire others to transform their lives. And her bookend monologues are poignant and heartfelt. Bravo!
Ms. Goulart also shines as the “unhappy Madonna,” using priceless facial expressions and nuanced vocal inflections to convey her innermost thoughts and feelings. Burdened no longer by a secret revealed in the second act, Rose comes to full bloom wearing a luminous white dress and smile that light up the stage. Indeed, the wardrobe changes are key to the setting and evolution of the characters, and Jean Cardinale’s period costume design, featuring elegant flapper gowns, coats and hats of the period, is outstanding!
The inimitable Marie Ballentine (Mrs. Graves) is entirely believable, and very funny, as the elderly widow whose stern manner masks a profound loneliness-and a penchant for nuts! And completing the sisterly quartet is Laura Fones who avoids superficiality by bringing to bear just the right note of melancholy and sensitivity to an otherwise aloof Lady Caroline.
The male cast members have less to do, but each does the most with their respective parts. Tony DiCorti scores as the vainglorious and domineering Mellersh Wilton who takes Lotty for granted. Jarrod Pirtle showcases his flawless Brit accent and comic timing as the philandering Frederick Arnott whose attempted assignation takes an unexpected turn-for the best! And Paul Ulloa projects a classy dignity and pathos as Anthony Wilding whose admiration for Rose Arnott is not quite what it seems.
Admittedly, the abbreviated final act of this enchanting fable does reach some all too tidy conclusions, but the lessons of hope, self-discovery and renewal are duly learned. And it’s helped immeasurably by the hilarious scene-stealing turn of Janet Strangis as Costanza, the Italian maid who makes herself understood despite not speaking a word of English!
For 32 years the Northside Theatre Company has brought exceptional theatre to the South Bay. Its productions invariably exceed well beyond one’s expectations. It has earned your wholehearted support!
By Matthew Barber
Northside Theatre Company
at the Olinder Theatre, San Jose
4 out of 5 stars
DIrected by Meredith King
April 14 – May 8, 2011