| Chicago Reader

Ring Round the Moon 


Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Long, long ago, in a more rigid and less democratic time and place than ours, Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon must have been funny. Under its original title, L'invitation au chateau, this 1947 fable of innocence lost and reclaimed was a hit in Paris; and Christopher Fry's English adaptation Ring Round the Moon met with success in London and on Broadway. In that very different, more formal social atmosphere. Anouilh's elegant and eccentric metaphors, his delicately barbed observations about old aristocracy and nouveau riche bourgeoisie, must have seemed clever and provocative.

Today, the light from Anouilh's Moon has grown dim and dull. This artificial exercise was always minor Anouilh, even when it was fresh and new; now it's barely worth consideration by academics, let alone a paying audience. The serious themes that Anouilh flirts with below the brittle surface of his mannered comedy are far better explored in his later, more important works.

Part of Ring Round the Moon's artificiality is deliberate; indeed, this is a story about artifice, in which the playwright's theatrical tricks both propel and comment on the antics of the characters. Hugo and Frederic, scions of a wealthy old French family, are identical twins, but their physical similarity belies their disparate personalities. Frederic is a gentle, emotional naif given to melancholy; Hugo is a cold, cynical ladies' man with a penchant for cruel game playing. Frederic loves and is engaged to Diana, an egotistical heiress--the daughter of a Polish businessman--who doesn't love him. Knowing that adventuress Diana will only make his brother unhappy, Hugo sets out to break up the pair. Hugo invites Isabelle, a dancer in the Paris Opera ballet, to a fancy ball and instructs her to pose as a mysterious heiress and to stir Frederic's interest and Diana's jealousy. The little ruse leads to a series of increasingly inconsequential plot complications, until the proper boy-girl couplings arbitrarily fall into place just in time for the third-act curtain.

Much of the script's humor derives from the gimmick of having Hugo and Frederic played by the same actor (a device that recalls Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear, staged at Goodman Theatre last season). The double-role trick allows Anouilh to show off by arranging a charade of multiple identities not unlike the charade Hugo arranges--a point Anouilh makes sure we notice as he times his characters' entrances and exits with split-second precision. This emphasis on role playing is meant to comment on the stagy shallowness of the upper-class characters' lives; but to all but the most socially isolated audiences the point is so obvious as to be irrelevant.

Ring Round the Moon would undoubtedly strike more sparks in a genuinely stylish production, one in which the aristocrats actually seemed aristocratic. But Steppenwolf Theatre--which, by presenting this play in the same season as last fall's Stepping Out, seems to be developing a disturbing affinity for subscription-season-filling trivia--offers a staging of this lightly lunatic comedy that's more earthbound than moonstruck. Tim Hopper, the only Steppenwolf ensemble member in the 13-person cast, certainly lives up to his name, bouncing about the stage in a tightly choreographed series of hops and skips as the sporty Hugo, then adopting a stooped and shuffling lope for the awkward, insecure Frederic. But Hopper lacks the dazzling personality and nobility of bearing that such actors as Paul Scofield and Michael York have brought to this play in other productions, while his show of physical agility becomes an end in itself.

Hopper's star turn is supported by an ensemble that, like Hopper, misses the crucial element of stylishness that could have made this play work. Only Linda Stephens, as Isabelle's dizzy social-climbing mother, conveys the lightness of touch needed for Anouilh's distinctive, sometimes precious mix of fairy-tale poeticism and droll, slightly bitter urbanity. As Isabelle, the innocent whose heart is broken and then rebuilt, pretty but bland Sarah Long lacks almost totally the magical qualities Hugo rhapsodizes about. The rest of the cast is stolid at best and smarmy at worst (as in the case of Kevin Crowley, a comedy-revue performer who sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb).

Director Rondi Reed, whose stagings of Steppenwolf's Stepping Out and The Common Pursuit displayed an adeptness for technical touches used to telling dramatic effect, seems to be in over her head here. She's obviously paid a great deal of attention to matters of timing--the entrances and exits, the connection between onstage action and offstage sound cues (nicely created by sound designer Rob Milburn, who also composed the pretty score in collaboration with Miriam Sturm), and the very detailed, very unspontaneous movements that Hopper offers in place of characterization in his two roles. But Reed doesn't begin to dig into Anouilh's text for its surface texture or its undercurrents.

And she's not much helped by Kevin Rigdon's workmanlike set--with real goldfish (!) in the onstage wishing pool--or Erin Quigley's costumes, both better suited to a teenager's fairy-tale theme party in Lake Forest than a fancy French ball the bygone era that Ring Round the Moon represents. In most every area, Steppenwolf's commonness of touch loses hold of what virtues Anouilh's strange, slight script might still offer.

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