The cherubs that adorn the ceiling in Cumston Hall are smiling this summer as the magic stirred up last season continues to enchant and awe audiences at the Theater at Monmouth.
Producing Artistic Director Dawn MacAndrews last year successfully tackled “power, passion and privilege” in one of the company’s best seasons in years. She themed this season’s offerings “Roar! The Year of the Woman.”
“[It] spotlights the ladies who move mountains for their families, friends and most importantly, themselves,” she wrote in the program. “Taking on tyrants, freeloaders and faithless frauds, these femme fatales fight for what they believe in, charting a course for a better world.”
“Enchanted April” and “Dial M for Murder,” two of this year’s non-Shakespeare offerings, fit that mold. Both feature women struggling to shrug off how men and society have defined them, and to be themselves.
Elizabeth von Arnim in 1923 published, “Enchanted April,” a novel about four women who did not know each other but pooled their resources to rent an Italian villa to escape damp and dreary London. Playwright Matthew Barber created a new adaptation for the stage in 2000.
Director Kate Bergstrom mines all the comic pathos from the script, allowing each woman to reveal her true self slowly, like a sweater unraveling or spring unwinding. She perfectly paces the two-act romance, allowing it to be sweet but never overly sentimental.
Lotty (Amber McNew) seeks out Rose (Bibi Mama), Lady Caroline (Katie Croyle) and Mrs. Graves (Janis Stevens) through newspaper advertisements. On the surface the women have nothing in common, yet they all seek renewal and redemption in the sunshine and warm sea of the Mediterranean.
McNew’s energy as Lotty, when she is away from her husband Mellersh (James Noel Hoban), is infectious. It is Lotty’s intense belief that sunshine and wisteria will soothe her and other women’s battered souls. McNew delightfully portrays what happens when a women, oppressed by social expectations, is able to turn her free spirit loose.
As Mrs. Graves, a matron reminiscent of the icy Lady Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey, Stevens is a wonder. She says as much with a raised eyebrow and a shake of her cane as she does with her acerbic tongue. Stevens’ performance will go down in Monmouth history as unforgettable.
Hoban is equally fine as Lotty’s stuffy and bewildered husband, who is nonetheless enchanted by his transformed wife. A memorable scene in the Second Act after Mellersh loses a battle with the villa’s hot water heater, stops the show because of Hoban’s stoic performance. (To say more would ruin the surprise.)
Rose’s actor husband Frederick (Ryan Broussard) and the villa’s owner Anthony Wilding (KP Powell) add more charm and romance to the mix to make “Enchanted April” totally enchanting.
The design team of Brittany Vesta, sets; Elizabeth Rocha, costumes; and Jennifer Fok utterly transform the stage into a villa on the Italian seaside. The contrast between the gloom and gray of London in the first act and the light and openness of the second is astounding. Theatergoers gasped with delight as they returned to the hall after intermission.
“Dial M for Murder,” first performed in London in 1952, is fine piece of noir in which a man plots to murder his wife. Alfred Hitchcock directed the film version two years later in 3-D, although it was rarely shown in that format.
Director Sally Wood allows her cast to plant their tongues firmly in their cheeks and edge toward satire depending on whether the audience wants to go there or would rather be scared. While the play was groundbreaking in its day, many of its plot twists and turns became standard in the television American television detective shows of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and look a bit trite onstage today.
Sound Designer Rew Tippin’s use of 1950s jazz and scores from B noir films enhances this production tremendously. The music adds tension to the action especially during scene changes. More than the set or the costumes or the language, the music keeps “Dial M for Murder” grounded in the 1950s.
Jake Loewenthal is the perfect combination of charm and swarm as Tony Wendice, the ex-tennis pro plotting his wife’s demise. His ability to be a devoted husband one moment and a murderous rogue the next is just plain creepy.
As Margot Wendice, Kedren Spencer is less exuberant than she is as Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” Her Margot is a woman trapped by the times, social expectations and the web of lies Tony has spun around her. Spencer gives a touching performance.
Marshall Taylor Thurman (Max Halliday), Captain Lesgate (Bill Van Horn) and Inspector Hubbard (Mark S. Cartier) complete the cast. Cartier at first seems to embody every investigator the PBS “Mystery” series has ever featured, but when he stops the suspect as he heads toward the door with: “Just one more question, if you don’t mind, sir,” it’s his resemblance to the American detective Columbo that causes theatergoers giggle.
MacAndrews, who took over the reins at Monmouth the fall of 2011, brewed up real theater magic last season and this summer. Her use of veteran performers such as Cartier, Van Horn, Stevens and Hoban coupled with talented newcomers including McNew, Croyle, Mama, Loewenthal, Broussard and Powell is sparking dynamic and memorable performances.
That is a good omen for next year, Monmouth’s 50th season.
“Enchanted April” and “Dial M for Murder” will continue in repertoire with “Twelfth Night,” “Richard III” and “Pride @ Prejudice” through Aug. 19. For information, call 207-933-9999 or visit theateratmonmouth.org.
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