by Gail M. Burns, August 2006
While I am sure you are all wanting to know how the Barrington Stage production of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon is, I would bet dollars to doughnuts that what you really want to hear is my opinion of the company’s new home in the former Berkshire Music Hall on Union Street in Pittsfield. After all, we have come to count on BSC to have the wherewithal to hire a talented cast and creative team and mount a solid production. There was no question in my mind as I drove down that the show would be just fine, my burning question was: Would the seats be comfortable?
The answer is yes – and I was right about the show too.
Let’s talk about the theatre first. It is not finished and it won’t be finished until early next year, but the orchestra level seating and the outerwardly visible performance areas are splendid. I don’t think there is a bad seat in the house in terms of sight-lines and acoustics. And the seats are comfortable. Just before I went to BSC I heard a report on the evening news concerning the plan to replace the seats at SPAC which included a sound bite of New York Senator Joe Bruno saying, "The mind only stays engaged as long as your seat is comfortable." Obviously BSC’s designers knew this. It’s a pity the boobs who designed the ’62 Center at Williams weren’t as smart.
The curtain rises to reveal a glorious set by Karl Eigsti, which is beautifully lit by Scott Pinkney over the course of the play’s three acts. Ring Around the Moon is set in the winter garden (aka conservatory) of a chateau in south-central France in the spring of 1928 on the afternoon and evening of a gala ball being thrown to celebrate the engagement of Frederic (Christopher Innvar) to the wealthy Diana (Rebecca Watson). Diana secretly loves Frederic’s unscrupulous identical twin brother Hugo (also played by Innvar) who has concocted an elaborate plan to sabotage the engagement by hiring a beautiful Parisian ballet dancer, Isabelle (Ginifer King), to pretend to be the niece of another guest named Romainville (John C. Vennema) and to seduce Frederic.
Isabelle arrives, attended by her ambitious mother (Debra Jo Rupp), and their cover is quickly blown when Capulat (Tandy Cronyn), attendant to Hugo and Frederic’s elderly aunt Madame Desmermortes (Carole Shelley), recognizes Isabelle’s mother as an old school chum. Also in attendance are Diana’s father, the obscenely rich businessman Messerschmann (Jordan Charney), his mistress Lady Dorothy India (Christa Scott-Reed), and her lover Patrice Bombelles (Mark H. Dold.) Befuddled by the scandalous goings-on of his betters is the “crumbling butler” Joshua (Robert Zuckerman).
Though set between the wars, Ring Around the Moon was written in 1947. Here director Julianne Boyd is using the 1950 translation by Christopher Frye, but has said that she and the cast referred frequently to Anouilh’s French original with the assistance of a translator. Anouilh was a playwright noted for his versatility. He wrote in many different styles and L'Invitation au château, as it is titled in French, was one of his “pièces brilliantes’ or “glittering plays” so named because they sparkled like well-cut gems with both surface brilliance and inner fire.
Although it has a happy end, Ring Around the Moon is not a conventional boy-meets-girl romance. Anouilh uses the pretty setting of his jewel to address issues of class, wealth, education, love and ambition.
The sumptuousness of Eigsti’s set and Elizabeth Flauto’s costumes coupled with the glorious waltzes in Randy Hansen’s sound design, wittily choreographed by Stephen Terrell make this production a very sparkling jewel indeed. The set literally twinkles around the edges and everyone looks fabulous – except for Rupp who is allowed to look absolutely ridiculous in her high-class get-up in the second and third acts.
According to a preview article on this production in the Berkshire Eagle, it was Carole Shelley who suggested Ring Around the Moon to Boyd, as a means of reuniting many of the cast of last season’s BSC production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, also directed by Boyd, in which Innvar, Dold, Shelley, Cronyn, and Zuckerman all appeared. Sometimes it is a dangerous thing when the actors have too much fun working together, but not here. And there are six newcomers on stage as well, which changes the dynamic considerably.
Innvar does a good job of keeping Hugo and Frederic separate and easily recognizable individuals. Frederic is the shy romantic while Hugo is the cad, an irresistible and deadly combination because any woman can tell you that her ideal man is a little bit of both. To have both qualities in the same handsome package makes Diana and Isabelle’s choices between the two brothers understandably difficult.
King is just lovely and completely believable as the proud Isabelle, while Watson makes Diana a vicious little vixen. Their cat-fight in Act III got a well deserved round of applause, and you’ll be glad to hear that neither of their gorgeous gowns gets too badly rumpled (the “tear” in Isabelle’s gown is obviously designed to be easily reattached.)
Shelley and Cronyn are once again very, very funny together. While these two major talents are sorely wasted in secondary roles, this now-annual escape to the Berkshires to have fun together on stage is obviously both ladies’ idea of a fine summer vacation, and who would deny them that? Perhaps someday they will agree to come north and perform in meatier roles for us.
If she was not sharing the stage with such a fine cast, Rupp would easily steal the show with her hilarious portrayal of Isabelle’s mother. This a woman we have all met before – frustrated in her own youthful dreams she know lives entirely through her daughter, and she is determined not to allow Isabelle to meet with failure like her own. Rupp is a tiny woman with a distinctive voice that she puts to good use in this comic tour de force.
Dold tangos about perilously, paired with the tremendously tall and thin Scott-Reed, whose misguided monologues on the imagined joys of poverty are hilarious. The two of them together just made me laugh. Scott-Reed’s Dorothy has enough sexual energy to wear out an entire battalion of men, so it is no wonder that both Dold’s Patrice and Charney’s Messerschmann end up abandoning her.
Zuckerman gets all the good reaction moments as Joshua, although I believe he is considerably less decrepit a performer than Anouilh had in mind.
Terrell and Boyd have collaborated so that the dancing and the action flow seamlessly together. Sometimes people enter from the dance floor in mid-rhumba, or sometimes the dance just explodes out of them, as does a spontaneous Charleston between Innvar and Watson.
You know, if the seats are comfortable, and everyone on stage is having fun (or at least doing a darned good job of making you believe they are), how can you not enjoy yourself? This is a perfect summer show, reveling as it does in the warm air and the moonlit sky of southern France. Outside the Berkshire air and sky and rolling hills definitely give France a run for its money, to make both Ring Around the Moon and Barrington Stage feel right at home in Pittsfield.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Ring Around the Moon runs through August 27 at their new Main Stage located at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield. On Saturday, August 19, the gala ribbon cutting and grand opening begins at 5 p.m., followed by the performance at 7 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours with two intermissions, and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006