Sometimes a play isn't as good as its cast. Madison Theatre Guild illustrated this point at Friday's opening-night performance of Lettice and Lovage, a comedy by English playwright Peter Shaffer, the creator of Equus and Amadeus. The actors brought stellar performances to the Bartell Theatre's Evjue stage, but the script was clunky and ponderous at times. The show runs through Saturday, Oct. 6.
The first part of the play is set in Wiltshire, England. Lettice Douffet (Allisanne Apple) is a docent at the historic Fustian House. The house is dull, but Douffet is most certainly not. She conducts several tours a day, watching tourists yawn and lean on their umbrellas. Soon she begins to pepper her presentation with fantastic -- and decidedly untrue -- facts about the house, its residents and its guests. Tour groups hang on her every word, which she delivers with dramatic abandon.
Before long, the Preservation Trust's London office sends Lotte Schoen (Judy Kimball) to check up on this docent gone rogue. Schoen confronts Douffet about her wild fabrications, sends her to London, and fires her. In the process, we learn Douffet's credo -- "Enlarge, enliven, enlighten" -- which has been passed down from her mother, a theater producer and actress.
The precise and exacting Schoen is both repelled and fascinated by Douffet. She offers her a new job, and they celebrate with a homemade quaff "enlivened" with herbs from the lovage plant. As the drinks flow, an unlikely friendship grows, and we see Schoen in a new light. Perhaps she isn't so dull and dour after all. Act III boasts a surprising twist involving the duo's love of history and imagination.
The play's beginning drags, and its resolution seems too contrived, but the two leads are compelling and authentic from start to finish. Apple draws upon her opera background to make Douffet's dramatic ways endearing instead of pathetic. With her large, sweeping gestures and grandiose proclamations, Apple shows how today's world might not be the ideal place for her character. Kimball's Schoen strikes just the right chords with her uptight restraint and scolding demeanor. Because of this, revelations about her passionate past are more impactful. The way she squares her shoulders before speaking, clutches her throat and then softens under the influence of Douffet's elixir adds detail to Schoen's personality.
I enjoyed the actors' chemistry immensely, and I found their characters believable as well. After the show, my friend and I concurred that this was some of the best acting we've seen in Madison. Director Betty Diamond should be commended for summoning these wonderful performances. The characters' costumes, by designer Raven Albrecht, were the icing on the cake. Douffet's fabrics follow her outsize movements, and her large, quirky earrings contrast with Schoen's modest blouses, A-line skirts and sensible shoes.