'Lettice and Lovage' is insightful humor about strong women

Colonial Players' current offering of Peter Shaffer's 1987 comedy "Lettice and Lovage" is a rare treat for anyone who appreciates thoughtful, insightful humor about strong women.

The plot centers on Lettice Douffet, an eccentric, imaginative tour guide for historic houses. Another fascinating character shares the stage in Charlotte "Lotte" Schoen, Lettice's bureaucratic opponent, who demands historical authenticity and proper decorum from tour guides.

Lettice finds the history of 16th-century Fustian House as drab as its architecture. The more Lettice embroiders and embellishes the history of Fustian House, the more her fortune and fame increase until she is visited by her outraged superior, Schoen. She summons Lettice to her London office, where Schoen dismisses Lettice from her job. Lettice reacts by comparing herself to Mary Queen of Scots going to her execution.

Lotte Schoen later arrives at Lettice's flat to deliver a letter of recommendation and tell Lettice of a job opportunity where her acting talents would be welcome. Pleased with the offer, Lettice celebrates by producing her home-brewed vodka flavored with lovage, an aromatic, seedlike fruit. After a few glasses, Lettice and Lotte discover they share architectural beliefs and philosophies about "enlightening prosaic dim eyes."

Colonial Players' skilled and seasoned director, Craig Allen Mummey, reminds us in his director's notes that heroines Lotte and Lettice "chafe against the mundane and unremarkable as they seek out beauty" in "modern British architecture dismissing the grey integrity of humdrum ordinary."

Once again, Mummey proves expert at creating a worthy production by showcasing two actors who define heroines Lettice and Lotte brilliantly in all their glorious eccentricities. So comfortable is Mummey in CP's in-the-round staging space that he even invites the audience to witness seamless character change. Five actors in a briefly shadowed pause reach into a box to don tourist costumes for quick scene changes.

Shaffer created the role of Lettice for Dame Maggie Smith. Never having seen her in the role, I can imagine no actor illuminating the role more eloquently than Mary MacLeod, who artfully conveys Lettice's "enlarge, enliven, enlighten" motto to the audience. It is a joy to observe her initial straight historical description of Fustian House, contrasting it with her second and third increasingly embellished and dramatized versions as she unleashes her formidable energy in each retelling to the delight of tourist groups and the CP audience as well.

As worthy opponent and eventual ally Lotte, Darice Clewell initially personifies the essence of the well-tailored, gray-suited, efficient bureaucrat who is appalled by histrionics but welcomes a transformative passion for art. Whether summoning passionate disdain for dull architecture or merely listening and reacting to MacLeod, Clewell constantly holds our attention.

Danny Brooks provides laughs as a surly tourist, and makes the most of his role as the attorney Bardolph.

Also delivering several hearty laughs is Shirley Panek playing eager-to-please office assistant Miss Framer, who is not immune to Lettice's dramatic gifts.

Beth Terranova adds her costume design expertise as she helps define Lettice with dramatic flair and Lotte with suitable well-tailored business restraint. Stage manager Jenna Ballard does double duty onstage as a tourist. Lois Banscher ferrets out suitable treasures in handling Properties Design. Richard Koster creates skilled lighting design.

One caveat — be prepared for a somewhat lengthy production. With two intermissions this show lasts about three hours.

"Lettice and Lovage" continues at Colonial Players theater at 108 East Street, Annapolis, weekends Thursdays-Sundays through May 28. Call the box office at 410-268-7373 or online at thecolonialplayers.org. A special buy-one-get-one-half-price ticket special is available from the box office for Sunday evening, May 15.

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