Rather than relying in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy upon magic or a merry mix-up, “Ring Round the Moon” hinges on a theatrical parlor trick: an actor seemingly being two places at the same time. In one instant, bon vivant Hugo (Brian Mackey), the host of a midsummer night’s fete, is exiting stage left. In another instant quickly following, Hugo’s kinder, gentler twin brother Frederic (also Brian Mackey) is entering from stage right or from down stage. This dizzying device is employed just the right number of times in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s frothy production of “Ring Round the Moon.” In other words, not to the point where it becomes exasperating or loses its comic zing.
Credit for the fluency of these transitions must go not only to the smooth execution by Mackey, a frequent Lamb’s performer, but to co-directors Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who ensure that these and others of the rambling play’s comings and goings delight more than distract. (Gilmour Smyth also portrays one of the comedy’s funniest figures: the wry, knowing and sometimes stogie-puffing Dowager Countess, aunt to twins Hugo and Frederic.)
“Ring Round the Moon,” written by English playwright Christopher Fry (“The Lady’s Not for Burning”), is an adaptation of French dramatist Jean Anouilh’s “L’Invitation au Chateau” (Invitation to the Castle). Its flight of fancy is that aristocrat Hugo has recruited a beautiful commoner, Isabelle (Joy Yvonne Jones), to his country manor house for the purpose of being magnificently gowned and to lure smitten brother Frederic from the heels of snooty Diana (Rachael VanWormer). Cocksure Hugo refers to this as his “huge and dark design.” Naturally, he has another, private motive, and just as naturally this ruse will go haplessly off track.
The comedy’s lengthy first act spends a great deal of time introducing its many characters, some of which feel extraneous. But the cast at Lamb’s is a sparkling group. Even those in strictly supporting roles, such as David McBean as the deadpan butler Joshua and Cynthia Gerber as the Dowager Countess’ dippy attendant Capulet, have moments to shine.
In sequences choreographed by themselves (along with Gilmour Smyth), Siri Hafso and Donny Gersonde practically dance away with the whole show. They, like everyone on stage, are opulently costumed by Jeanne Reith.
Mackey’s physical and oratorical stamina aside, the revelation of this production is Jones, whose presence is commanding without her even speaking, and when she does, with fire in the weightier second act, her Isabelle articulates the play’s moral: money can buy neither love nor happiness. (She makes a point of a very different kind in a wild throw-down with VanWormer’s Diana.)
Though not exactly subtle, when Isabel and filthy-rich party guest Messerschmann (Manny Fernandes) literally tear up and toss into the air notes of currency, “Ring Round the Moon” further decrees that wealth and class are unimportant, or at least they should be. Happily-ever-afters needn’t depend on either one.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/22/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.