According to tour guide Lettice Douffet, Fustian House is inaptly named. “Fustian” means “turgid,” “bombastic,” and “pretentious” speech or writing. Lettice says it’s the blandest, gloomiest, 16th century building in Britain. So she decides to spice up her presentations more and more.
A dreary staircase becomes “the Staircase of Ennoblement,” where Elizabeth I might have tumbled down had not John Fustian lept “the whole height” the steps “in a single bound,” caught the Virgin Queen of England, and carried her nimbly to down to their sumptuous repast of puffins, coneys, and roasted hedgehogs.
Lettice plays so fast and loose with the facts, she’d probably elaborate on important historical events. The guillotine? Not enough. She’d “endore” it with burnished gold.
But she sure can weave a tale.
As he does in Equus and Amadeus, Peter Shaffer makes Lettice & Lovage a tug of war between the extraordinary and the mundane. In this case, the enemy is the “mere” – i.e. plain old pimply-faced reality. It just isn’t good enough for Lettice’s airborne imagination. Nor, once she cracks her seemingly impregnable repression, is it for Lotte Schoen.
Lotte works for the Preservation Trust. In effect, she’s Lettice’s boss, who has a slavish obsession with facts. At first they look like each end of a wide spectrum: Lettice, ornate and theatrical; Lotte, spare of speech and granite cold.
Then they have a “quaff” of Lettice’s imitation, 16th century cordial, which is “very enlarging.” Lotte, who goes from polite sipping to impassioned chugging of the magical beverage, opens up, and vwa-lah: they discover acres of common ground.
And resolve never again to do anything “merely.”
In a way, Moonlight Stage Productions’ loss has been San Diego theaters’ gain. Since she’s resigned, Kathy Brombacher has directed staged readings and various productions. Her theatrical savvy’s in evidence throughout.
In a way it’s unfair to anyone else playing the part. I saw Dame Maggie Smith’s Lettice during the New York run (1990, if I remember) and it will forever remain in my Most Treasured Chest of Live Performances (I remember leaving the theater and stone gray Manhattan had an eerie gleam).
For Scripps Ranch, Jill Drexler doesn’t try to emulate Smith. Drexler gives a fine and consistent performance. She could explore Lettice’s eccentricities more, though, even if it means breaking the hallowed rules of Acting 1A.
Lettice is one of theater’s plum female roles. Dana Hooley makes Lotte one as well. She has the sweeping arc, not Lettice: Lotte rises from her self-imposed tomb into flowering eccentricities. Hooley traces every change with invisible, but dead certain craft. Beautifully done.
Like Hooley, no matter how many times Tom Stephenson performs, they don’t seem enough. Here he plays Bardolph, a lawyer dull as Fustian House, and a far cry from the famous drinking buddy of Sir John Falstaff. And gives him vivid life.
Debra Wanger heads the supporting cast and does a funny, turn-off-your-cell phones intro.
N. Dixon Fish’s set(s) reconfigure like a Rubik’s Cube, from the great hall of Fustian House to Lettice’s living room, so packed with antiquities it’s a museum in itself.