‘Ring Round the Moon’ is a romp – Isthmus

One of my colleague’s favorite stories involves growing up as an identical twin. In high school, she and her sister would often hurl insults at each other in anger, with their favorite attack being “ugly,” which was like accusing their own reflections of being flawed. Such tales of twin dynamics are at the heart of Ring Round the Moon and perfectly capture the unique relationship between two people who are the same — yet couldn’t be more different.

Ring Round the Moon, which opened American Players Theatre’s 45th season on June 15, is a romp through a 19th-century French countryside estate, set in a stylishly modern conservatory, referred to as Winter Garden. The English adaptation by Christopher Fry is based on Jean Anouilh’s L’Invitation au Château. The romantic comedy centers on twin brothers Hugo and Frederic. Unlike the wide-eyed and naïve Frederic, Hugo is cunning and manipulative and devises a plan to end his brother’s relationship with the cold-hearted Diana by hiring the gorgeous but poor ballerina Isabelle to pose as a wealthy woman to woo Frederic.

At its best, Ring Round the Moon hums like a finely tuned piece of music, allowing complete immersion in the performance. Under Laura Gordon’s direction, the production does that with acting, choreography, costumes, lighting and sound — combining to make this production, which runs three hours and fifteen minutes, whiz by, especially in acts two and three.

Nate Burger, who plays both Hugo and Frederic with the help of acting double Colin Covert, is remarkable. His mastery of playing two characters adds to the onstage confusion as the other characters struggle to discern which twin they are speaking to (or kissing, for that matter). The theme of mistaken identity is brought to life through Burger’s subtle shifts in body language and vocal nuance, distinguishing the cunning Hugo from the naïve Frederic. His seamless transitions between the two roles showcase his versatility and depth as an actor.

Choreographer Brian Cowing, who stepped in at the last minute to perform the role of Patrice Bombelles, unexpectedly became the audience favorite. With script in hand, Cowing made his APT stage debut and performed admirably, seamlessly integrating his dancing and reactions, supported generously by his colleagues. His ebullient, sultry and funny choreography was outstanding, too. By the show’s end, it was clear how proud his castmates and the audience were of him, as evidenced by a robust standing ovation. (Sam Luis Massaro is expected to return to the role soon, according to APT.)

Additional standouts included Phoebe Gonzalez as the earnest ballet dancer Isabelle and Colleen Madden as her maddening piano-teaching mother. Laura Rook delivered a stylishly off-putting performance as Diana Messerman; La Shawn Banks as Romainville thrived on the audience’s energy, and Barbara Kingsley portrayed the substance-snorting, insult-hurling grand dame Madame Desmortes with great flair.

The set, designed by Nathan Stuber, was replete with palms, ferns and lantern lights, adding to the production’s charm. One minor quibble: Anouilh’s original play featured music by Francis Poulenc, one of my favorite composers. Nevertheless, Joe Cerqua’s eclectic sound design and musical contributions admirably filled the auditory space, enhancing the play’s atmospheric settings without overshadowing the narrative. 

Ring Round the Moon runs through Sept. 20. It showcases APT at its finest. This is a glamorous production that offers a delightful escape while provoking deeper reflection on the nuances of human relationships — whether or not you have a look-alike in your life.

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