Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Terra Nova Serves up Meaty Production of "Lettuce and Lovage"



Make no bones about it. You don’t have to be a vegan to sink your teeth into Peter Shaffer’s over-the-top comedy, "Lettuce and Lovage" and come away with a satisfying taste in your mouth. Everyone from omnivores and carnivores to strict vegetarians should find plenty of comedic cud to ruminate on with this delightfully campy pastiche of preposterous theatrics.
During one of the evening’s two intermissions, I had a chance to talk briefly with the production’s director, Mark Stevenson, who informed me the Shaffer wrote the play specifically for British actress, Maggie Smith. If he hadn’t told me, I’d have thought he’d written it for Susan Martinelli, the Terra Nova actress who fits the role like it was custom made for her.
Martinelli dominates the first act of this three act play with her exuberance as she, as the eccentric Lettuce Douffet, leads groups of tourists through a rather unexciting and undistinguished British manor house. To enlarge, enliven and enlighten her audience of tour takers, she like, Don Quixote, takes liberty with reality, stretches the truth and gives the prosaic a shot or two of experience enhancing narrative.
In less capable hands, there would be a tendency to go over the top on this decidedly over the top role, but the actress plays it just right, hitting everything from her moues and movements to her accent and ambient airs with a wonderfully apt tone that generates laugh after laugh.
In act two, Martinelli recedes a bit into the background, but not much, which allows her antagonist, the much more staid Lotte Schoen to emerge into the spotlight. As the head of the Preservationist Trust which employs the libertine lady, Allison Cahil as Schoen, makes a wonderful transformation from a stiff employer intent on releasing the transgressive tour guide from her duties to an intimate confidante - with the help of several quaffs of Lettuce’s lovage laced libation, a potent home made cordial direct from the Elizabethan era.
Act two also introduces some interesting concepts that focus on the mediocrity of modern architecture (both women are romantics whose tastes look backwards on a more aesthetically inclined past) and who long for the days when "the communal eye" produced such magnificent cities like pre-World War Two Dresden.
As enthrallingly comic as act one is, as cerebrally stimulating as act two is, act three is almost abysmally inane by comparison. After some introspection, I place the blame on the author who seems to have gotten off track here, although he redeems himself with an inspired finish that washes away any residue of theatrical regret.
As the author of such noteworthy plays as "Equus" and "Amadeus," Shaffer hits some false notes when he takes the play in a new direction in the final episode, only to come up short. I felt a bit embarrassed for Mark Yochum, who deserves much praise for his splendid depiction of Bardolph, a solicitor sent to defend Lettuce in a court case against a rather serious charge. As Lettuce readies for her next big scene, he’s asked to mimic the sound of a drum role, which comes off somewhat awkwardly and absurd. Again, I blame the playwright for demanding this out of character behavior in his text.
Despite its third act weakness, "Lettuce and Lovage" is more than worth the price of admission, if only to watch Martinelli captivate the audience with a fine evening of entertainment, bolstered by some exceptional acting that extends all the way to Julianne Avolio in a rather undersized role.
"Lettuce and Lovage" is at the Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville section, at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, through July 7, and at 2 p.m. on July 1. Tickets are $20 at the door, $15 in advance, $12 for seniors and students.. For reservations, phone 412-394-3353.