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Apart and Together 

Theater reviews: The Syringa Tree and Ring Around the Moon

"The Syringa Tree" is a searing essay on South Africa's recent history of racial loathing and near self-immolation, as seen through the eyes of a young white girl. In the world playwright Pamela Gien so painfully evokes, tension, distrust and discrimination mark relationships not only between whites and blacks but also between whites of English and Afrikaaner descent and among blacks from different tribes. Despite apartheid's vigorous effort to separate the races, their lives and their fates are inextricably intertwined -- occasionally in joy, but more often in pain.

The author drew on childhood memories to create the two dozen characters who tell the story. The play's trick is that one actress portrays all the roles. This could be seen as a gimmick, or as an excuse for a virtuosic display of thespian firepower. But as Dee Pelletier demonstrated in her stunning performance at Vermont Stage, this lone-actor choice actually emphasizes how apartheid divided individuals within their own souls. Every person was forced to internalize habits that accorded with state-mandated prejudice. Everyday behavior became a kind of twisted, schizophrenic performance. The wrong word or act in front of the wrong person could result in arrest, or worse.

A white child of English ancestry, Elizabeth Grace narrates much of the story at ages 6 and 9, beginning in 1963. In suburban Johannesburg, her father is the local doctor and her mother has become neurasthenic under the strain of institutionalized racism's irrationality. Elizabeth's closest relationship is with her black nanny Salamina, who must hide her own newborn baby Moliseng -- with the Graces' help -- because the child does not have a government pass to live in a white area. Salamina and other black characters, such as Zephyr, the neighbors' gardener, connect Elizabeth to her African homeland with earthy lore, tales of trickster spirits and powerful native songs.

In contrast, Elizabeth's Afrikaaner neighbors try to fill her with bias and fear. Even as a child, she must become a practiced liar because her "friend" next door might turn baby Moliseng into the police. In apartheid's darkest days, bureaucratic quicksand swallowed up innocents, random violence hit even whites who were sympathetic to the black cause, and children died in the cause of freedom. All of these strokes of history touch Elizabeth's life over the course of the play.

Pelletier carried the weighty story with aplomb. Her barefooted, energetic performance encompassed the breadth of the people she portrayed: Salamina, as grounded as the African soil; the child Elizabeth, as free-spirited as her homemade tree swing. Distinctive mannerisms and speech patterns made each character easily distinguishable, without being phony or overdrawn. For example, Salamina spoke with a deep, languorous sonority; her laugh was guttural and breathy. Characters aged with subtle changes in vocabulary or voice intonation.

The set was as simple and beautiful as the open African veldt: a mottled reddish-brown floor, painted to resemble the iron-rich soil, with a low line of distant hills and a blue backdrop for the sky. Aside from the swing, the only other furnishings were a rough-hewn wood table and stool. On this spare canvas, lighting and sound effects were integral to conjuring changes in scene and mood, such as creating the unseen bonfire around which Zephyr, Salamina and other black workers gather, or raising the threat of a police raid with flashing sirens and barking dogs. Scenic and lighting designer Steve TenEyck meshed his work well with that of sound designer Tim Reppert to add depth to Pelletier's storytelling.

Loss as deep as Elizabeth's is not assuaged by the passage of time. Zephyr, the gardener, crystallizes the play's most potent message: "We carry the sin of our brother." South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a powerful new model of how a nation begins stitching together raw wounds. An insightful work of art such as The Syringa Tree is another thread in the healing process.

*******

Imagine a swanky 1930s party at a countryside château, with music and dancing and guests dressed to the nines. Twins -- one evil, one good -- played slickly by the same actor, are at the center of constantly shifting romantic machinations. Eyebrows arch and remarks get archer as the plot twists towards its implausible yet enchanted happy ending.

Frothy, French and fun, Jean Anouilh's Ring Around the Moon is a delectable winter treat. But don't mistake it for mere farce; beneath the witty bon mots and upper-crust bonhomie lies a barbed meditation on social status, money and the fickle nature of the fragile human heart.

The play itself is an ambitious undertaking, with three acts that run nearly three hours, a tricky dual-lead role and mountains of sophisticated dialogue. The University of Vermont Theatre Department's current production tackled the challenge fearlessly, though with mixed results. The all-student cast earned an "E" for effort, and many performances rose to the demanding material.

The plot is haute soap opera. The action takes place at the country home of Madame Desmortes, a sage and snappy, wheelchair-bound dowager. Her bad-boy nephew Hugo schemes to break up the engagement of his lovelorn twin brother Frederic to bitchy heiress Diana Messerschmann. Hugo's plan? Enlist a Parisian ingenue, the sweet-faced ballerina Isabelle, to distract Frederic. By becoming the belle of that night's ball, Isabelle will make Frederic -- and perhaps a few other men -- fall in love with her.

Subplots of betrayal, jealousy and mistaken identity proliferate. And of course nobody falls in love according to the grand design. Madame Desmortes has the greatest insight into the amorous woes of her younger guests. "Luckily, there are certain old women who have begun to see more clearly, just at the time, alas, when they're having to take spectacles." She recognizes that starry-eyed lovers often create idealized versions of their intended. "We're terrible tailors. We cut the cloth, take no measurements, and when it doesn't fit we cry for help." Miraculously, by dawn the jagged edges of broken hearts have matched up where they belonged in the first place, and a happy end is had by all.

The greatest joy of Ring Around the Moon is Anouilh's singing, and sometimes stinging, use of language. The play is strewn with sparkling turns of phrase that beg to be savored. (In fact, English verse playwright Christopher Fry gained more acclaim for his translations of Anouilh's work than for his own plays.) The greatest frustration with the UVM production was that some of the dialogue got swallowed up, either through hurried speech patterns, unfortunate blocking or too-loud background noise -- music and twittering birds. The women seemed to project better than the men, but overall the lost language seemed less a performance issue than a result of poor overall staging decisions.

Director Sarah E. Carleton's most egregious error was with the characterization of Isabelle's mother; Lizzie Chazen was presumably led to interpret her role not as a comic foil but as an odious buffoon. Chazen's performance was over-the-top and immensely out of proportion to everyone else on stage. That meant her character occasionally brought the action to a dead halt for the sake of some cheap Three Stooges laughs, which the audience readily gave. But Anouilh's social satire deserves more; it is biting because it blends subtle and sophisticated elements with sillier ones. Chazen's excellent work in last fall's Beyond Therapy suggested that she is capable of a more nuanced performance.

Carleton was spot-on with the rest of her cast, though. Adam Yeager Gould settled nicely into the dual role of Hugo/Frederic. As the action progressed, his performance grew more commanding and the differences between the devil-may-care Hugo and the diffident Frederic grew clearer. Christ-opher Cohen proved that understatement could be the soul of comedy in his role as the Addams Family-esque butler, Joshua. He loomed with corpse-like dignity, showing the proper servant's strain not to be shocked by the wacky affairs of his wealthy superiors.

Alli Shapiro reveled in her plum part as the snuff-sniffing Madame Desmortes. Although her voice sometimes grew shrill, she captured a key aspect of the aged grande dame: her wistful affection, behind all the wisecracks, for the love-struck youths.

Catherine Durickas embodied Isabelle's moon-faced, pink-cheeked innocence. Stage positioning made her dialogue difficult to hear at times, but her expressive face clearly broadcast her character's emotional shifts.

Secondary characters simply glowed. Jessica Hodge played the two-timing mistress Lady India with a delightfully frisky hauteur. Tim Fairley portrayed the morally dubious Romainville with a delicious mix of exasperation and befuddlement. As rich girl Diana Messerschmann, Stephanie Pollock personified a spoiled brat par excellence. As her frustrated father, Will Todisco rode a seesaw between indulgence and indignance.

Scenic designer Jeff Modereger, assisted by a 21-person crew, transformed the Royall Tyler into the expansive terrace of a French country estate with a majestic, opulent set. A series of towering, Moroccan-inspired arches separated a raised porch -- where multiple French doors led to the wood-paneled interior of the house -- from the space where most of the action took place, a large marble patio. Cascades of greenery ringed this brilliantly faux-painted floor: flowerboxes, vases and urns overflowing with petunias, gladiolas, tulips and peonies. Luxurious details abounded, such as elements made to resemble Tiffany stained-glass windows and intricate Art Deco tiles.

The lighting, designed by John B. Forbes, was flawless, perfectly matching and enhancing the mood of the action. At the beginning of scenes, for example, he created a subtle effect of moonlight filtered through tree branches. Considering the mammoth size of the set, Forbes did a remarkable job balancing delicate details with large-scale concerns.

Just as a movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers does, Ring Around the Moon's glamorous costumes made you long to be a wealthy swell from the 1930s. Costume designer Martin A. Thaler pulled out all the stops. The men were dashing in their white tie and tails, and the women preened like peacocks in full plumage: fur, feathers, sequins, tiaras, boas and elbow-length satin gloves. Especially stunning was Isabelle's glittering pale amethyst satin gown, with a long ruffle fluttering down the back that made her look like a butterfly.

Such elaborate production requirements make Anouilh's work difficult to stage in an era where minimalism is a budgetary choice as well as an artistic one, so the opportunity to experience Ring Around the Moon is a rare one. The play's escapism, whimsy and fantasy all delight. But Anouilh's tale resonates in other ways, too. Happiness requires compromise, and a willingness to bend to the quirks of fortune. This was certainly something the audience understood at the play's premiere in 1947, when France was emerging from the shadow of war. In affairs of the heart, its truth remains timeless.

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