Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
Pretty, fairy tale-like 1912 romance “Ring Round the Moon,” with its French chateau aristocratic setting, lush wisteria-filled gardens and lavish gowns, screams opulence and extravagance.
Oh … and it’s also a parody, so much so that playwright Christopher Fry subtitled it “A Charade With Music.”
“It’s a time of sumptuous excess and deals a lot with different societal classes and how unkind they can be,” theatre instructor and director Michael Kary said.
The play, based on Jean Anouilh’s “The Invitation to the Castle,” follows two wealthy brothers – the innocent Frederic and his devious twin brother, Hugo. Frederic is engaged to heartless heiress Diana Messerschmann (Kaitlynn Johnson), who Hugo knows is not right for Frederic.
So Hugo (Brandon Brown) plods about thinking of ways to break up the pair and prevent what, to him, is sure to be a loveless marriage. His answer: the sweet Isabelle (Christina McSheffrey), a poor, yet stunning, ballerina from Paris whom he invites to a party thrown by his aunt, Madame Desmermortes (Tarnim Bybee). The twins’ aunt is a shrewd woman who wields her power while perched from her wheelchair. His plan is for Isabelle to catch Frederic’s eye, ending the engagement he so frowns upon (perhaps because he believes Diana is
actually in love with him).
But things take a turn, as they do in stories of misplaced romance, when Isabelle falls for Hugo.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the sumptuousness of this play, it’s really what bubbles just underneath the surface that gives it so much girth. Audiences will see some animosity between the classes, upper-class pretensions and lower-class ambitions.
“Ring Round the Moon” dazzled Kary years ago, so much so he brought the play to the attention of GCU’s theatre department.
“I saw it and I thought, ‘That was wonderful,’” said Kary, who waxed poetic about live theatre and how special it is – how you can watch a play one night and can see something different in the same play the next night, and the next. “Live performance – there’s something special about that, and so this is my way of sharing the experience I had 18 years ago.”
He loved “Ring Round the Moon” so much that he begged the theatre department to add it to the season.
“It’s one of my favorite plays because of the themes of love and how it’s handled, and the characters are large and fun. We really haven’t done a play like this before as far as style goes, so that was good for us.”
The work is a pastiche, meaning it imitates another time that has come before. It was first produced in 1947, though Anouilh set the fairy tale-comedy-romance 35 years earlier, in the 1910s, during the waning years of the Belle Epoque. It was a time of optimism and great prosperity that also marked the end of an era for aristocrats who would be done in by modern life.
As such, the play “is bigger than real life,” Kary said.
Audiences can expect to see the actors on stage draped in costumes that replicate the haute couture of the day: the feathered headbands; the gowns made of fine and delicate silks, chiffons, organdy and lace; the wide-brimmed hats and dazzling fringed evening gowns. One silver beaded gown worn by Isabelle for the party is a show-stopper.
Costume designer Nola Yergen and assistant costume designer Sarah Levinson said the play references the Callot Sisters, a force on the fashion scene at the time, having been featured at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. Their fashion house at its height touted a staff of 200 and did 2 million francs a year in sales.
“The costumes are looking gorgeous. The costumes I wear are very beautiful,” said senior Megan Sutton, who plays Mother in the play. “I adore the dresses I wear. She wears this big really fancy dress for the party. Lots of beautiful beading and detail work in the back.”
And the set – much of the action takes place in the dreamy garden of a French chateau — are designed, much like the costumes, to whisk audiences away to a kind of magical time and place.
Kary emphasizes how one of the big themes of the play is beauty.
Looking beyond those dazzling costumes and sets, a large part of what drives Kary to appreciate this play is the characters. They are larger than life, yet they also have a sense of humanity “that really makes it a fun watch because there’s a lot of surprises.”
The production hinges around the twin brothers who steer the ship: “They claim to be polar opposite people, but they’re still twins, so they share some traits,” Kary said.
Beyond the twin brothers, cast of strong female characters carries the play.
“There’s a lot of great female characters, which is a high priority for us,” Kary said. “A lot of theatres are male-centric in their characters, so it’s good to find a play that has a really solid ladies cast.”
What’s intriguing is that those characters are all so different.
“There’s the ingénue girl who’s not an ingénue; she’s really tough. There’s an eccentric woman who’s addicted to excitement. There’s the aunt in a wheelchair who you think is a big battle ax of a woman, but she really has the best interest of her family at heart. And you have what seems to be a really spoiled young woman who knows she’s poisoned by her privilege.
“So all these characters seem real flat but they’re really deep.”
And count on some levity from the dancing footmen, agile characters who hold entire conversations while doling out some fancy dance moves (namely Allye Moyer as Lady India and Trustin Adams as Patrice Bombelles), the matter-of-fact butler (Kaleb Burris) who knows all the goings-on in the household, and the ever-happy maid (Brenda Batres) who lives for romance.
Sutton said the character she plays, Isabelle’s flamboyant mother, is definitely grandiose: “Playing her takes a lot of energy,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t like to be touchy-feely on people and I’m not very high energy, whereas she is very touchy-feely and she is very high energy.”
Despite being so over the top, she has good intentions when it comes to her daughter. Mother felt her own dreams were quashed and she hasn’t lived up to her own expectations, so she wants something better for Isabelle.
“It’s been fun to delve into someone who is very different from me,” Sutton said.
Gustavo Flores is bringing to life the very wealthy Jewish business magnate, Messerschmann, heiress Diana Messerschmann’s father.
“With my character, he loves his daughter and his daughter loves him, but it’s not in the best way,” Flores said of Messerschmann, a man who has worked hard to build his wealth. “In the end, he has to redefine his entire life and finds that money can’t fix everything.”
Flores said what’s so intriguing about the play, to him, is that it is a romance that takes the audience in so many different directions. There’s unrequited love. There are characters trying to get other characters to fall in love with other people. Some are cynical about love. Others are not. All those romantic dynamics, he thinks, will make for an interesting evening of theatre (Thursday’s preview show was made even more interesting by a 10-minute rainstorm power outtage that the cast powered through, no problem).
In the end, “It’s good fun,” said Sutton. “I think this is such a good show to sit back and watch it and just be enveloped in that world and enjoy what’s going on – enjoy the insanity and the silliness and the craziness. … It’s an opportunity to just forget about your life for a little bit.”
IF YOU GO:
What: “Ring Round the Moon”
Where: Ethington Theatre, GCU campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24-25, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, and 2 p.m. Aug. 26 and Sept. 2
Tickets: $12 (discounted tickets available for senior citizens, military personnel, GCU employees, GCU alumni and children 12 years old and younger). GCU students who show their student ID get one free ticket.
Featured cast: Brandon Brown, Christina McSheffrey as Isabelle, Kaitlyn Johnson as Diana Messerschmann, Micah Larsen as Romainville, Tarnim Bybee as Madam Desmermortes, Gustavo Flores as Messerschmann, Kaleb Burris as Joshua, Brenda Bates as Capulet, Trustin Adams as Patrice Bombelles, Allye Moyer as Lady India, and Ryan Ardelt and Tyler Sorrels as footmen.
Featured designers and crew: director Michael Kary, scenic and properties designer William H. Symington V, lighting designer Claude Pensis, sound designer Anjielyn Chang, hair and makeup artist Christen McGrath, stage manager Mandy Tompkins, technical director/master electrician Steven Davis, choreographer Trustin Adams.
Information: Call 602-639-8880 or email Ethington
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.