BWW Reviews: Belmont University Theatre's THE ANTICS OF ROMANTICS Offers Frivolous Improv Fun

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With audience participation required to bring it fully to life onstage, Jeff Wirth's The Antics of Romantics is overflowing with imagination and creativity, making it one of the most exhilarating theater offerings we've seen this season. Directed stylishly - with generous wit and flashes of comic brilliance - by Brent Maddox, Wirth's play is now onstage at Belmont University's Black Box Theatre at the Troutt Theatre complex starring an accomplished and adept cast of student actors who, obviously, are having the times of their lives.

Inspired by the rollicking antics - some might say lunacy, but why quibble here? - of commedia dell'arte, which herein refers to the comedy of improvisation, The Antics of Romantics features a cast of 10 actors who are joined onstage for the duration of the two-and-a-half hours of the play by audience members cajoled, coerced and convinced to engage in the hilarity transpiring in the fictional Italian town that provides the setting for the play. There are no masks to be found, except for the ones worn during the comedy's masked ball scene, but instead Wirth's script harkens back to commedia dell'arte's beginnings as a response to the political/social overtones of the society in which the artisans live.

Any mention of politics seems rather arch, given the raucous nature of the comedy that plays out in The Antics of Romantics, which is so much fun as to seem slightly naughty, ribald and perhaps even illegal. Thus, what is most notable about this play and this particular production is how director Maddox gives his student charges free rein to chew on the scenery (and Bekah Reimer's gorgeously appointed set gives them some tasty flats to munch on) while putting their artful talents on full display.

With an all-star cast led by Lindsay Phillpott, Matthew Rosenbaum, Miles Gatrell, Kyla Lowder and Luke Hatmaker leading the comic charge (they are given ample, if not yeoman, support by a cast of five proteans vigorously played by Amanda Cutrona, Cassidy Conway, Natalie Thompson, Jenna Pryor and Michael Joiner), the audience immediately finds itself a part of the festivities, with two volunteers taking on the leading romantic roles of Valiente (a once-rich man now reduced to beggardom) and Angelina (the 16-year-old daughter of the town's leading dowager who is seeking the proper husband for her lovely progeny) for the duration. Without rehearsal and with only bare-bones instructions for what they are to do onstage, the two neophytes take on leading roles in the production which means that each performance has its own unique flavor and challenges.

Frankly, it's impossible to explain what happens in The Antics of Romantics without sounding pedantic and hyper-critical (perhaps spoiling it for you, dear readers), so forget any preconceived notions you might have about a normal night at the theater. Instead, give yourself over to the hijinks unfolding before you and revel in the cacophony of comedic talents that deliver this winkingly witty and sparkling confection for your viewing pleasure - and who knows, maybe you'll be joining the company onstage as a guest artist.

Drawing upon operetta as well as commedia dell'arte, The Antics of Romantics is charming and engaging, perhaps even more so if you already know the actors playing the principal characters who deliver focused and completely committed performances. Trusting of one another, they take on the specific challenges of improvisation with aplomb, missing nary a beat in the process, relying on their shared theatrical experiences to deliver a unique product night after night.

Phillpott, as a saucy wench of a lady's maid named Rosetta, shows off her lovely voice and serious command of musical theater while proving her mettle as a confident comedian. Her insouciant manner and rather stereotypical Italian accent - not to mention her no-holds-barred, full throttle performance - ensure she snares the lion's share of the laughs.

Rosenbaum - playing Fidello, the manservant to the down-at-heels Valiente - is charged with leading the volunteer actor through the play while remaining firmly in control of his own character. He does so beautifully, exhibiting his acting abilities to full effect and manipulating the audience with the arch of an eyebrow, the movement of a hand or foot and wringing every possible laugh from his broadly-drawn character.

As Lasivio, the snooty, snotty and smarmy major domo of Senora Prestigo's household, Gatrell again shows off his acting range with a thoroughly hilarious performance. In fact, Gatrell's character might best exemplify the commedia dell'arte foundation in political satire: He derides "poor people's love" as irrelevant and unseemly, while striving to win the friendship of a dashing sea captain come to woo the rich and available Angelina. Boastful and cunningly resourceful, Gatrell somehow manages to make Lasivio appealing and charming despite his baser attributes, which is no walk in the park (but I won't go there).

Lowder, wearing a gold ballgown paired with an ever-changing array of fashion accessories with a rainbow of wigs crowning her head (including a Marge Simpson-inspired tower of blue "hair"), is the perfect portrait of the ItalIan Dowager Senora Prestigo, overbearing and imperious in her carriage and demeanor. Somehow, through all the ridiculousness of the plot, she retains her regal bearing while presenting a perfectly modulated performance.

Swinging into the fray as the flame-haired, black-whiskered Capitano Fanfarone (why do I think I've eaten canned pasta that bears his name?), Hatmaker shows off his ample bag of comic tricks and his mastery of improvisation (he, perhaps more so than any of the other characters, is at the whim of the audience's demands). His interactions with the audience rival Gatrell's and when the Capitano gets his comeuppance, Hatmaker shows off his fearlessness as an actor.

Maddox's vision for The Antics of Romantics ensures that a good time is, indeed, had by all and I can't imagine anyone not finding themselves completely caught up by the superb performances of the ensemble and the theatrical wizardry in full flower before them. Reimer's set, which refashions the Black Box Theatre into an 18th century Italian town square (I'm just guessing that's the time frame, given the anachronistic nature of the plot's contrivances), is gorgeously designed. Adam Ellis' evocative lighting design, which gives him an opportunity to show off his own sense of humor, adds to the overall visual impact of the piece, as do the wryly clever and colorful costumes designed by Jessica Mueller.

Jonathan Dennis' piano and Lauren Conklin's violin are also essential to the overall effect accomplished by the production, adding the necessary musical accompaniment with oftentimes uproarious results. Kudos are also due Maddox (at least I assume he deserves the credit) for the pre-show music that sets the scene of a romantic escapade with a decidedly classic bent: Lushly scored renditions of "Blue Moon," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Isn't it Romantic?" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" are but a few of the musical theater gems that make up the pre-show musical program that is as certain to delight as are the performances that follow.

The Antics of Romantics. By Jeff Wirth. Directed by Brent Maddox. Presented by Belmont University Theatre at the Black Box Theatre, Troutt Theatre Complex, Nashville. Through November 20. For reservations, call (615) 460-8500.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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