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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Some Enchanted April at ACT

Enchanted April
Suzanne Bouchard and Julie Briskman
On the eve of the hottest summer weekend in recent Seattle history, about four hundred fortunate first-nighters, including this writer, drank from the sweet, cool well of delight that is director Warner Shook's bewitching production of Enchanted April at ACT. Shook's sure hand at the helm, a singularly satisfying company of Seattle veteran actors, and a spare yet sumptuous physical production add up to a frothy yet never flimsy evening of (largely) subtle romantic comedy.

Matthew Barber's stage adaptation of the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim takes four dissatisfied English women to Italy at the height of its post-WWI/pre-WWII heyday for a holiday that becomes a renewal and reawakening for the ladies and the men in their lives. Lotty Wilton, the narrator and instigator of what begins as a women-only retreat to an Italian dream villa, goads her rather drab and wilted church acquaintance Rose to join her. In order to afford the trip, they find a doughty dowager and a brooding socialite to join them. Despite some initial awkwardness and incompatibility, the quartet, under the eye of an alternately bemused and amused housekeeper begin to blossom along with the spring flowers. The arrival of Lotty and Rose's estranged spouses, as well as the Anglo-Italian villa owner adds spark to the plot in unpredictable ways. At play's end, there is the promise of future April reunions clouded only by the storms of war that we know will eventually alter all their lives.

Not having seen the popular 1922 film version or the Tony-nominated Broadway version, I went into Enchanted April without many expectations, and was rewarded at every turn. Shook's great skill at mining rich performances from actors is as potent as ever. Julie Briskman as Lotty is a marvel of twinkling eyes and giddy giggles, a woman unafraid to let her dreams take flight, and she is partnered most adroitly by Suzanne Bouchard's skittish and scared Rose. Often cast (and always able to command the stage) as a jaded sophisticate, Bouchard is here allowed to reveal her immense gift in a subtler, yet no less impressive way. Deb Fialkow's Lady Caroline admirably embodies the sophisticate role here. Fialkow, gowned resplendently in the sassiest and most stylish of Frances Kenny's costumes, earns laughs with the subtlest gesture, while winning sympathy for her character's emotional anguish. Suzy Hunt is Seattle's current casting favorite for battle-ax older women roles and her vastly amusing turn as the doughty Mrs. Graves pinpoints why. If there were an M-G-M stock company today, Hunt would be the modern equivalent of Marie Dressler or Ethel Barrymore. And seldom has Marianne Owen been allowed to display her comic chops as adroitly as she does as the fiery housekeeper Costanza.

The men in this tale take a bit of a back seat, but director Shook keeps them a vital ingredient in the mix. R. Hamilton Wright exudes easy charm laced with wistful melancholy as villa owner Antony Wilding, Michael Winters is warmly winning as Rose's husband Frederick who has been keeping company (under another name) with Lady Caroline, and David Pichette scores some rollicking laughs in his role of Lotty's boorish husband Mellersh, especially when he ends up au naturel in front of all the others.

Robert Dahlstrom's set segues stylishly from a rainy, prim English landscape to the romantic Italian garden setting, set off with grace by Mary Louise Geiger's dreamy lighting design. Composer/Sound designer Michael Roth contributes a background score that is limpid and intoxicating, always supporting and never intruding on the action.

In a recent Seattle Times interview, Shook mentioned having a yen to direct Claire Booth Luce's The Women. One hopes that one of Seattle's theatres grants him his request, and that he can coerce all the lovely ladies in Enchanted April to join in.

Enchanted April runs through August 8 at ACT, 700 Union Street in downtown Seattle. For more information visit ACT on-line at www.acttheatre.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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