Exit 22 brings high-comedy to the stage
//Claire Vulliamy, Writer

It is Saturday rehearsal. The young cast of Ring Around the Moon make faces as they scrutinize the videotape of Act Two. Their teacher and director Bill Murdoch points at the screen, making suggestions. Then, once more, they launch into action. During the next hour, scenes are performed several times, wrinkles smoothed out and the motivation of the characters re-embedded until each line is nuanced just right.

Ring Around the Moon is a lesser-known play adapted from a French script that first premiered in 1950. The original was written a few years earlier by popular satirical French playwright Jean Anouilh, under the more literal title of L’Invitation Au Chateau (Invitation to the Castle).

It is the story of twin brothers, Hugo and Frederic. Frederic is the quintessential nice guy, and being so, he is afflicted with unrequited love. His fiancée, Diana, not so secretly prefers the bad twin, Hugo, who is so slightly sociopathic that women find him irresistible. Hugo is annoyed (yes, annoyed) at his brother’s misery, so he brings in a pretty young thing with an overbearing mother and chapped hands, and fixes her up nicely for a ball — with the idea of making Frederic fall in love with her. Predictably, the pretty young thing, Isabelle, is more enchanted by Hugo than his double (moral: nice guys finish last). In an utterly shocking twist, the twins are played by the same actor, an energetic Ryan Bolton.

Despite the production’s gentle marketing, which has hinted at comparisons to Mad Men, and works with a heavy 1950s slant that would have you imagining cocktail parties, wise-cracking fast-talking cads and their dames, this is not the case. The original, after all, was written in 1947, in post-war France. Even with all the decoration in place, the play is not defined by any era.

“The costume designer fell in love with the idea of the young people in the ‘50s,” says Murdoch, but otherwise, “it’s a bit anachronistic in terms of its costuming: The character of Madame Desmortes is dressed in a Victorian period and her governess is dressed in the ‘30 and her mother is dressed in the ‘40s, so it’s not strictly of the ‘50s.”

Instead, Ring Around the Moon seems to be set in that timeless fantasy world, always just old and rich enough to be romanticized, and yet relatable, because “it’s not too distant.”

“This play is designed to charm, [the original] was written at the end of the Second World War. I think it was Anouilh saying ‘okay, let’s forget. Let’s just enjoy,’” says Murdoch. He finds that while it is built purely to entertain, the style, language and aftertaste of France all elevate it beyond the level of Disney.

Yes, everyone is a sort of stock character, but pretty good stock – chicken noodle. In spite of all the fluff about fancy dresses and romance — though that’s undoubtedly there — it’s actually a pretty funny play.

Murdoch explains that it is written in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, the classic Italian humour format – i.e., scary harlequin clowns in masks. “[As in the tradition] you have sets of lovers that are having difficulty, and then spinning around them are all these aged characters that in one way shape or represent the old guard. Then there are these crazies that also spin around as well.” It should be noted that there is actually some real, and serious, spinning in the production.

Disguising their youth with hunched backs and sour expressions, Tiffany Anderson and Arash Memarzadeh are impressive as the two most aged characters: Madame Desmortes (literally “of death” in French), who has some of the best lines in the script, and Diana’s rich daddy, Messerschman. Then there is Joshua, introduced as a “crumbling butler,” and played by young actress Simone Belshaw, who, vocal pitch aside, pulls it off.

Bill Murdoch says that he felt the piece was chosen “to give the students an opportunity to play something that has a good sense of language, a nice sense of style and is comedy,” which he notes is a challenge to play. “But high comedy, as opposed to a low, slapstick kind of comedy,” he adds.

Tracy Varju, who plays the female lead, Isabelle, enjoys the “dry humour” of the play but says that while there is considerable excitement at being the ingénue, she tries to “keep in mind the way women are portrayed as beauty objects.” While her character is pushed around a fair bit, Varju feels that Isabelle comes into her own later on in the story.

This production will be the last for director Bill Murdoch. Observing his passionate directing style on the sidelines, in which he hums, moves and breathes along with the cast, it’s clear those 30 years have not taken the life out of him. “I’ve enjoyed it a lot, but it is a lot of work. You do teaching during the day and you rehearse at night.” When he retires, he will finally have spare time. Varju says she really appreciates the work that he’s put in. “Bill’s really energetic, and that helps a lot.”

Ring Around the Moon has a limited run, from February 9 to 12, timed so you can go and take notes for V-day. Keep your eyes peeled for the classic deep back-bend kiss.

//Claire Vulliamy, Writer

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