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The Niagara Blog:     Shaw's Enchanted April - truly captivating with an enchanting female cast!

Moya O'Connell as Lotty Wilton. Photo by David Cooper
Enchanted April's Moya O'Connell

Enchanted April, Photo illustration by Emily Cooper When I interviewed Shaw's Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell for the Toronto Sun at the start of the season, she admitted (with great pleasure) that her company enjoys an incredible array of talented female actors. In Enchanted April, - Moya O'Connell, Tara Rosling, Marla McLean, Donna Belleville and Sharry Flett prove her right.

In Maxwell's Director's Notes, she explains "that Enchanted April was an enormous hit as a novel, once more as a movie and Matthew Barber's skilful and moving stage adaptation followed suit, playing successfully on Broadway and in many theatres thereafter. There is no doubt that the basic notion of the story - that one can escape the confines of one's daily life and become transformed or "translated" as Lotty, the story's indefatigable instigator calls it, is hugely appealing. Is there anyone of us who has not wished ourselves at some point, to be elsewhere - somewhere new - where our true selves can be revealed?"

"In this story, however, another layer is added by its historical context. In the first act we visit a rainy, grey London in 1922 - a world that is mired in a post-war malaise, where grief still holds sway. The rules have been changed irrevocably by the War to End All Wars, yet many women are still caught in a situation where change seems tantalizingly far off and the options seem to be to jump into a world of mad partying - like Lady Caroline - or to simply watch the parade go by. As Lotty puts it in her first meeting with fellow escapee-to-be Rose: "Where everyone is racing to, I don't know. I only know that I have been left behind."

"The notion then of answering an ad in the Times to rent a castle on the Italian Mediterranean - WITHOUT husbands - is truly radical. Something we do today, with a couple of girlfriends at the push of a computer button, is not even imaginable. Hence, with stakes this high, the journey that Lotty and her three "companions" take shows a level of deep need and requires a kind of foolhardy bravery that makes us root for and celebrate them."

Marla McLean as Caroline Bramble, Moya O'Connell as Lotty Wilton and Tara Rosling as Rose Arnott. Photo by David Cooper   Marla McLean as Caroline Bramble. Photo by Emily Cooper   Marla McLean, Caroline Bramble, Moya O'Connell, Lotty Wilton, Tara Rosling, Rose Arnott, Sharry Flett, Costanza, Donna Belleville, Mrs. Graves. Photo by Emily Cooper

"Could we call them feminist role models? Mrs Graves would be horrified, and Rose would shudder at the very idea, but I feel that Elizabeth von Arnim might be pleased to know that Lotty, Rose, Lady Caroline and Mrs Graves can stand proudly at the beginning of a line of cultural women adventurers that range from Rebecca West to Georgia O'Keefe to Thelma and Louise right up to our current Eat, Pray, Love heroine, Elizabeth Gilbert!"

The contrast between Act 1 set in gloomy, wet, depressing and claustrophobic London and Act 2 set in a flowery, open, sunlight-infused castle close to the energizing blue Mediterranean sea near Genoa, Italy is captured well by designer William Schmuck and lighting director Kevin Lamotte, and the appreciative audience was wowed when the curtain opened after the intermission. In the preceding train ride, they also craftily captured Lotty (Moya O'Connell) and Rose's (Tara Rosling) mounting anxiety along the way.

Matthew Barber's adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's novel explores four very different British women with challenging lives and sets them together in a castle that they jointly rent after Lotty places an ad in The Times that promises "wisteria and sunshine".

Marla McLean as Caroline Bramble and Tara Rosling as Rose Arnott. Photo by Emily Cooper   Marla McLean as Caroline Bramble,  Photo by Emily Cooper   Moya O'Connell as Lotty Wilton. Photo by David Cooper    Moya O'Connell as Lotty Wilton. Photo by Emily Cooper

Lotty's desire for "wisteria and sun" is mightily answered, and as a nice touch, when one walks outside the Festival Theatre to the courtyard during intermission, there, gleaming away in the Niagara on the Lake sunshine, is Shaw's very own wisteria wrapped mightily around a pergola, stationed by the doorway. In fact, one should fully explore Shaw's attractive grounds that seem to grow more "enchanting" each year.

O'Connell is terrific as her controlled spirit emerges from the strictures of a perfunctory husband Mellersh (Jeff Meadows), emerging seemingly as a 60s flower child who exults in nature and experience, forcing Rose to adopt the same attitude and liberate herself from both a philandering poet-husband and deeply engrained church piety. Donna Belleville is superb as the widow, Mrs. Graves who tries to dominate others with pettiness, yet cannot resist change. Sharry Flett exults in her role as Costanza, the feisty cook/maid who torments Mrs. Graves yet is soon amalgamated into the optimistic cadre of women.

Marla McLean is a wonderfully sensuous yet unhappy femme fatale, Lady Caroline Bramble, wearing form-fitting clothes, (sometimes without underwear), and speaking of apparel, the brief nude bath scene where she extends her hand to a towel-clad Jeff Meadows is hilarious, with the female cast laughing as hard as the audience when the towel drops, particularly when Flett places a brown cowboy hat on Meadows' firm yet exposed derriere.

William Schmuck's costumes flawlessly capture the shifting mood of the ladies particularly that of Lady Carolyn, as weighty coats, scarves and hats of London give way to Italy's languid and colourful freedom. Yes, they eventually all wear flowers in their hair, and doesn't that just remind you of hippie San Francisco?

Moya O'Connell's Lotty is the key to group transformation, and it has been fun to watch her this season depart from her obvious sexual allure as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to the austere Russian Commissar Elizaveta Poskaya in Peace in Our Time and of course, now Lotty in this play, in which she blossoms into a natural beauty like the very flowers around her.

Tara Rosling, the "disappointed Madonna" is again as gifted as she was in Lady Windermere's Fan. Marla McLean stretched out upon a chez-lounge and sipping booze from a flask, reminds one of a stunning Marilyn Monroe, secretly unhappy in her sexy success.

The men - Patrick Galligan, Kevin McGarry and Jeff Meadow, are all credible but limited because this play centers on the ladies who are so uplifting that the audience at the end gave them a standing ovation. If you enjoyed Room with a View and Howard's End, take in Enchanted April at Shaw; it's good tonic for the spirit! Enchanted April runs until October 26 at the Festival Theatre. (1-800-511-SHAW)

Elizabeth von Arnim
In the program notes, Joanna Falck describes Elizabeth von Arnim, author of the novel The Enchanted April, as "a woman who led both a charmed and difficult life. Charmed because her life was filled with many friends and fascinating people: her children's tutors were the writers Hugh Walpole and E.M. Forster; her cousin was the writer Katherine Mansfield; she was married to a German count and the second Earl Russell, brother of philosopher Bertrand Russell; and she had an affair with writer H.G. Wells (among others). She even entertained Bernard Shaw when they both lived at Whitehall Court in London. She was also an immensely successful author of more than 2I books, the first of which, Elizabeth and her German Garden (I898), was reprinted 20 times in its first year. But with that charmed life came another side - she lived through the horrors of World War I, losing both friends and family; and she endured two disastrous marriages to difficult men. It is from these two sides of her life that Enchanted April comes. While the story of four women who escape to Italy for "wisteria and sunshine" is full of warmth and wit, it is also laced with the difficulties of women who, like von Arnim, have lived through a war and grappled with the challenges of marriage."

Enchanted April Trailer

Enchanted April Teaser

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