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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Theatre de la Jeune Lune proves its Tony Award-winning panache in an effervescent Lettice and Lovage

At its heart, British playwright Peter Shaffer's sparkling 1987 comedy, Lettice and Lovage, is about overcoming mediocrity. Stately home tour guide, theatrical Lettice Douffet, creates interest in boring Fustian House to entertain and inform her tourists. Lettice could be a metaphor for highly creative Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a company that specializes in theatrical inventiveness. Like her, Jeune Lune consistently sends away its audiences "enlarged, enlivened and enlightened." Lovage continues Jeune Lune's Tony Award-winning tradition in a summer show of zany delight.

Lettice and Lovage
Barbra Berlovitz and Wendy Lehr

Joel Sass directs Lovage and designed its huge, three-part set that is defined by immense corners of carved Jacobean wood frames. He's not a company member, but his visual, playfully over-the-top theatricality compliments the spirit of Jeune Lune's physical style.

A sense of the sheer fun of a skilled production team creating comedy around a witty script, two strong characters and two talented actors emanates off Jeune Lune's generous stage.

Veteran Twin Cities actor Wendy Lehr plays Lettice in a tour-de-force performance that, not having seen Maggie Smith in the original, feels definitive. Lehr is a natural comedian. She invests Lettice with thespian flair, a passion for history, and authentic-feeling eccentricity. And she affects a passable British accent. Lettice grew up in a family troupe of traveling Shakespearean actors. Her dingy basement flat in London's Earls Court is stuffed with old costumes and props, which she uses to gussy-up her tours of dull Fustian House. Over three different tours, she begins to depart from the boring Preservation Trust tour script to embark on a cycle of escalating historical embellishment. Into her most extravagant invention marches hortatory Lotte Schoen, her employer from the Trust, played by Barbra Berlovitz.

In Berlovitz's hands, Lotte is stiff and starchy and a historical purist who wears her gray suit like a policewoman's uniform. Only facts matter in the closed box of her mind. In a wonderful scene of verbal wit, farce and drama, Lotte sacks Lettice. Lettice flings off her funereal Mary Queen of Scots cloak to reveal a scarlet, fleur-de-lis emblazoned execution suit, like Mary's before her executioner.

Something about Lettice's dramatic flair awakens a tweak of longing for the romance of history in stiff Lotte. Liberally aided by Lettice's re-creation of an Elizabethan cordial, made from mead, vodka a lovage, an unlikely friendship forms between the two women, and they begin to perform theatrical re-enactments of historical moments. Lotte might lose her helmet-like wig, but Berlovitz wisely retains her character's stiff awkwardness in the transition from foe to friend, continuing Lotte's role as a foil for the dramatic Lettice.

All goes well until a nasty accident during an enactment of King Charles I's execution threatens to put Lettice in jail.

Lisa Rafaela Clair plays Lotte's petrified secretary, and Vincent Gracieux has nice moments as a yawning tourist, a bland observer in a wheelchair, and as Lettice's tolerant lawyer Mr. Bardolph. An ensemble of nine actors change costumes on stage and have vignette moments as Lettice's tourists, noshing on a bag of crisps, scratching an occasional bottom and blowing leaky English noses.

As so often in Jeune Lune productions, Sonya Berlovitz's costumes are small works of art in themselves, and Sass chose period Elizabethan revels music and a courtly snippet from Handel's "Zadok the Priest" to emphasize Lettice's triumphal exit, even as Lotte fires her.

With its many strengths, Lovage is Lehr's vehicle. The stage leaps to life in her presence. Lettice has no time for anything that is "mere;" her stated goal in life is to "enlarge, enliven, and enlighten." Like Lettice herself, there's nothing mere or mediocre about Jeune Lune's light-hearted production.

Lettice and Lovage June 10 - July 31, 2005. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. $ 25 - $30.00. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-333-6200 or visit www.jeunelune.org.


Photo: Michal Daniel, 2005


- Elizabeth Weir



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