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Taproot stages winning Enchanted April
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Taproot stages winning Enchanted April

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

Enchanted April
Taproot Theatre
Through October 24


Taproot Theatre, which makes its home in North Seattle in the Greenwood business district, is one of the few of Seattle's many theaters that has a clear mission statement. It's direct and easy to understand: "We value faith. We respect people. We celebrate theatre." The current production, a stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's beloved 1922 novel Enchanted April, illustrates each of the three parts of the theater's mission clearly, vividly and charmingly.

Since its humble beginnings in 1976, Taproot has grown and grown and grown and is now one of Seattle's major second-tier stages. Its core of season subscribers in one of the most loyal groups in town, and the theater, always aware of its support, returns the loyalty. Subscribers and single ticket buyers know what to expect: a good story, strong characters, nothing too shocking, a strong (if subtle) moral and - usually - a happy ending. Thus, Taproot and Enchanted April were born to be theatrically paired.

Enchanted April started life as a novel that would today be called "chick lit." Two strong-willed English women are determined to rent an Italian villa for a month in April and get away from the cold English spring, a fairy-tale vacation "for those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine." By the time the duo - somewhat reluctantly - arrive at the "castle," their number has grown to four. The added women - a high-society fashion plate wanting to "get away from it all" and a cantankerous elderly English widow - only add to the fun (and, to be fair, the stereotypes).

The original novel was a hit. A stage adaptation soon followed in 1925, then a film version in 1935 - all modest hits. Modern audiences discovered the story again in a delightful 1992 British film (which has just recently been released on DVD for the first time). This stage adaptation, by Matthew Barber, was originally produced in 2000 by the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. A Broadway production in 2003 brought Molly Ringwald to Broadway in a leading role. Seattle audiences first saw the new stage version several years later in a fondly remembered local production. And now, as 2009 approaches its final months, the show returns at Taproot.

As in all of its incarnations, the play is a gentle story of character. Nothing really important happens. Nothing terribly funny occurs. Little of major impact occurs. But, in this enchanted tale of unlikely friendships, of character growth, of, well, of "sunshine and wisteria," a lot of wonderful moments are captured. The audience basks in the glow of the renewed lives and, every now and then, ruminates of its own feelings of friendships, of marriage, of suppressed desires, of impossible longings.

Karen Lund's sensitive direction keeps the plot flowing and the odd assortment of characters, of types, strangely appealing. Charity Pazenzini is Lotty Wilton, happily married but longing for an independent life. Like the novel's author, Charlotte (Lotty) does not consider herself an early feminist. Far from it, she simply knows she wants "something more" out of life, and the Italian vacation might be just the thing. One caustic character describes her aptly: she "would make Pollyanna ill." She intuitively knows her husband will not understand her needs, but she barges ahead and recruits an unlikely companion from her women's club. Rose Arnott, described as "a disappointed Madonna," is aghast at the very idea.

She, too, is married, but perhaps not as happily as she pretends. Her husband writes salacious novels under a pseudonym - a throwaway plot point early in Act One that proves to have wonderfully funny consequences and complications in Act Two. Nikki Visel as the reluctant Rose is an anchor of reality in the play and in the cast. Lotty, described as being "like a hummingbird - one never seems to see it land," has a more flamboyant role, but Visel has the stronger character. Both women, Taproot regulars, are solid in their roles. (This writer fell in love with Parenzini in Taproot's Beau Jest, a charming comedy about a Jewish girl who hires an actor to impersonate her boyfriend, not realizing that he knows nothing about the Jewish faith and is certain to offend her orthodox parents. It's hard to play a believable bubble brain, but Parenzini has the talent.)

Strong support comes from Anne Kennedy as Lady Caroline Bramble. Glamorous at all times, Kennedy carefully stays on the side of believability without ignoring the "type" she is playing. Her sophisticated insights add much humor to the proceedings - "have you noticed how difficult it is to be improper without men?" she deadpans when the four women arrive in Italy. The line could easily be from Oscar Wilde. Kim Morris, much younger off-stage than her grumpy, frumpy widow onstage role, is another delight. Her role was clearly the favorite for many women in the audience who had the insight never to become like she was. Llysa Holland, as the Italian cook and housekeeper, played the role broadly and delighted much of the audience.

The men in the show are solid, adding a subtle strength to the production. Ryan Childers is properly befuddled as Lotty's husband, Jeff Berryman is properly roughish as Rose's novel-writing spouse, and Aaron Finley is properly proper as the young Englishman renting out his family's Italian home. All have great scenes, with Childer's near-nude moment coming as a comic highlight. Wrapped only in a skimpy towel, he encounters the stuffy old widow and & well, you get the idea.

Production values are solid, even though Taproot's resources seem pushed to the limits at times. The Italian villa for Act Two is wonderful. The multiple English scenes in Act One are less successful. Many of the 1920s costumes are period-perfect, but, to be honest, a few miss the mark, proving to be unflattering to the actress of the moment or otherwise questionable. As usual for Taproot, the overall production rates high (but one has to wonder if wisteria can actually grow in hanging pots).

This truly enchanting Enchanted April continues through October 24. Check with the box office for student/senior discounts, the $10 under-25 rate and other specials. Details are available at (206) 781-9707.

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