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If you get the chance, do see Moonlight Stage Productions’ wonderful Ring Round the Moon. It’s got a terrific cast, a handsome look, humor, brainteasers, and panache — and closes March 21.

Asked what he feared most, Truman Capote said, “Real toads in imaginary gardens.” That describes Jean Anouilh’s play. On the surface Ring looks familiar enough. The three-acter combines romantic comedy with traditional elements of farce and fantasy: mismatched lovers, embarrassing situations, apt comeuppances. But beneath the shimmering surface, Ring morphs.

Hugo and Frederic are identical twins. But while Frederic has an astonishing innocence, Hugo’s the opposite. Fearless, “always ready to shoot the rapids,” he cannot fall in love. It’s as if, though only ten minutes apart in clock time, Frederic’s still a young teen, while older Hugo skipped his youth. He talks like a grim veteran of love’s ways. Or is this another mask?

Frederic will announce his engagement to Diana Messerschmann. She’s as radiant as her inheritance, but far too worldly for his baby brother, Hugo’s convinced: they’d flunk an eHarmony.com pop quiz. Ergo, he must avert disaster.

Everyone else wears a social mask in Ring, so why not Hugo? After all, Frederic says, “He doesn’t like people to be unhappy. Particularly unhappy in love.” Beneath all his jaded bluster, could Hugo have designs on Diana? Is that why he plans a Pygmalion-like ruse to “save” his brother?

Hugo’s aunt, Madame Desmortes, is hosting a ball at her 15th-century French chateau. Hugo will throw in a ringer: Isabelle, a ballet dancer, dressed like royalty. He’ll coach her behind the scenes — à la Cyrano — on how to become the ball’s belle. She’ll capture Frederic’s eye, so the plan goes, and lure him away from his fiancée. Then at dawn, Isabelle goes her merry way, with a nice wad of cash — and the gown to boot.

“It’s really like a fairy story,” says Capulet, Mme. Desmortes’s companion, “really it is, isn’t it?”

Well, sort of. Heroes of fairy tales have Teflon-strength, gossamer auras. Anouilh’s don’t. They’re actual people in a fairy-tale setting. They bumble and hurt, even the schemers. Ring has three strategists: Hugo, Mme. Desmortes, and old Messerschmann, Diana’s millionaire father. Sparks ignite when their agendas collide.

At the Avo Playhouse, if you look past Mike Buckley’s inviting winter garden set, a harvest moon above eggshell-colored furnishings and bright bouquets, and past the elegant, pre-WWI formal attire (even Ralph Johnson’s officious servant Joshua is dressed to the nines), and beneath the characters’ cultivated veneers, Anouilh peoples the stage with solitary beings, achingly alone and wandering through funhouse mazes in search of happiness.

And if they don’t find it, they fear, they’ll end up like Madame Desmermortes — er, Desmortes, the name shortened for Moonlight’s production so it can mean “of deaths.” Every time Jill Drexler “trundles” onstage in a wheelchair, the Madame talks classy trash, acerbic asides as if penned by Oscar Wilde, as in “I love it when the lamb turns round and eats the high priest.” Throughout, Drexler’s a wry treat.

Even Messerschmann (“knife man”: an impish-wise Jim Chovick) and daughter Diana (feisty Frances Anita Rivera) learn to favor the heart over superficial wants. The play, in fact, turns its world upside-down: party-crasher Isabelle (ardent, earnest Mary Bogh) exposes the others as imposters.

Jason Heil should direct more. Christopher Fry’s translation (1950) combines stately cadences with free-flowing wit, a fairy tale with actual hurt. Heil’s directorial touches match Ring’s tricky tones with precision.

Howard Bickle plays Hugo — and brother Frederic, the former as a semi-sinister Cary Grant, the latter as a lost teddy bear. Bickle’s terrific as both (and how he switches from the one to the other is part of the show’s fun: he exits stage left, then calmly appears stage right, having sprinted a 25-yard dash behind the scenes without huffing or puffing).

Moonlight received a grant for Ring, which helps explain why talent runs so deep, including Annie Hinton as Isabelle’s gabby mother, Danny Campbell as the curious lepidopterist Romainville, and Veronica Murphy as Desmortes’s longtime companion, Capulet (another name change, from “Capulat” in the original, to Romeo’s lady fair).

All performers do quality work. But an extraordinary (and extraordinarily funny) set-piece crowns the evening. Patrice and Lady India, who are having an affair, do a tango. Craig Noel Award winners Francis Gercke and Jessica John dance and fret. Their growing fears impel their steps. In Colleen Kollar Smith’s hilarious choreography, they even dance when seated.

  • Ring Round the Moon by Jean Anouilh, translated by Christopher Fry
  • Moonlight Stage Productions, Avo Playhouse, 303 Main Street, Vista
  • Directed by Jason Heil; cast: Howard Bickle, Mary Bogh, Danny Campbell, Jim Chovick, Jill Drexler, Don Evans, Francis Gercke, Annie Hinton, Hannah M. James, Jessica John, Ralph Johnson, Ryan Hunter Lee, Veronica Murphy, Frances Anita Rivera; scenic and lighting design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd; sound, Chris Luessmann
  • Playing through March 21; Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-724-2110.
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