The Vineyard Playhouse, director MJ Bruder Munafo, and playwright Gwyn McAllister are celebrating the beginning of summer in style — romantic, witty, English style — with the world premiere of “Passionata.” Despite many nods to its Edwardian farce heritage, the show is as vibrantly up-to-date as any Hollywood romcom, but far more clever.
An exquisite stage set welcomes audiences into a serene English garden, with stone walls, delicate seats, roses everywhere. Blooms cascade down walls, brim from planters, climb trellises. As Percy Grainger’s dancelike “Country Gardens” tinkles, viewers could assume whatever drama ensues will be as orderly and genteel as the setting.
But don’t be fooled!
The intricate interactions that take place in this aristocratic bower are as convoluted as stems twining together, often histrionic, buzzing with the chaotic vigor of a midsummer garden. As romantic intrigues interweave, unravel, and then knot again, it seems doubtful they could be smoothly resolved.
But with the masterful plotting of playwright McAllister, Munafo’s supple directing, and the magic of the legendary Passionata rose, much is possible. The more unexpected it is, the more likely.
The story line seems predictable. There’s the girl, her stiffly formal dad, her proper society matron mom. Here’s the suitor, engagement ring at the ready.
Two minutes in, the plot spins away, turning expectations topsy-turvy. This being 1910 England, themes of class and cash differences are ever present, festering as relationships, traditional marriage, and gender roles are stretched, tested, and even put asunder in the name of love.
Casting is impeccable. Actors inhabit roles like comfy cottages they’ve lived in a long time. Munafo has assembled an ensemble whose diverse personalities and styles mesh with perfect chemistry.
Fiona, the dynamic matchmaking strategist, gladly puts her love life on hold to help others find romance. Played by Molly Densmore, Fiona is crisp, ingenious, wired with resolve but sparked by a hint of mischief.
We have to love Edward (Matt Greenberg), a bumbling Tweedledum, engagingly awkward in words and movements, straining from too small clothes, pint-sized hat teetering. Born a gentleman but masquerading as a gardener to be near Tom, his inamorato, Edward bemoans his aches, pains, and the hardships of labor while collecting money from home.
Himself a sham as Fiona’s love-struck husband-to-be, Michael Jennings Mahoney’s Tom allows himself to be manipulated in absurd directions in hopes of satisfying marriage-hungry parents while staying near his lover.
With deft choreography the smitten youths approach each other then do-si-do off, proffer cheeks as air kisses float by, and exchange gazes of adoring, barely contained lust.
Theirs may be the scandalous “love that dare not speak its name” of 1890s poetry, but their every glance and gesture shout it proudly from the rooftops.
As Clarice Rittenhouse, Finty Kelly, in her professional stage debut, is a petite ball of energy, piety, and self-absorption. Though tiny in stature, she fills the stage with formidable presence. Whenever she appears, the scene becomes hers. This girl’s eye is on Jesus, heart wed to service, conversion her mission. Men? Couldn’t care less.
Playing Harold, David P.B. Stephens is a formal father and henpecked husband. But when driven to summon resolve and speak honestly — watch out!
Katherine (Abigail Rose Solomon) too is mannerly to a fault, fashionably understated in flowing beige and cream. She runs her household with manicured hand, firmly in control of the family and her own emotions, all order, tradition, and cool good sense. That is, until Antonio appears.
Played to perfection by Paul Munafo, this aging-but-still-charming Italian Romeo woos Catherine with eloquent words and suggestive looks, stirring long-buried memories of their youthful dalliance. Will she waver? What if she gets a rosy pinch? Ouch!
Passionata, the magical rose whose thorn prick is said to throw the prickee in love, is treated like a star in her own right. We memorize her place on stage and watch with naughty glee as character after character draws near, vulnerable fingers outstretched.
Then, as if the rose herself gives the cue, someone repeats the fable again, as others fall reverently silent and her latest victim swabs a bloody digit.
There are skeletons in every closet. Lost loves and hidden identities abound. Hardly anyone comes without a past or two, a fantasy, a heartbreak.
Take Fiona, still mooning over Rory, who was dismissed by her class-conscious mother. And what about Clarice’s virtuous Indian colleague? Is it only his passion to help the poor that catches her fancy?
Dialogue by McAllister, a freelance journalist and writer for The MV Times by day, is smart and snappy, replete with bright one-liners and deftly turned phrases. Tempo is quicksilver, words careening upon words. To their credit, the actors got it right at once, delivering lines up to speed with no tripping from the earliest shows.
Comings and goings are constant and dramatic, ostentatious and overblown, true to Edwardian form. Characters do not simply enter and exit. They burst or bluster in, flounce or bustle out. They skip, stride, gesticulate madly.
Exclamations are flamboyant and unruly. Emotional squalls pop up like midsummer thunderstorms. Arrivals bring announcements, schemes, a tray of cocktails. And some come pushing a baby carriage. Whose baby? All is fraught with intrigue!
As a guilty playgoer known to nod off at performances, I was happily surprised by the curtain call to find myself at the edge of my seat, eyes wide open, wishing for more.
“Passionata” is a welcome respite from the gnawing worries of today’s world. Step into this Edwardian courtyard; take a breather. Just don’t pick the roses, lest you fall under Passionata’s spell.
“Passionata” continues Tuesday to Saturday, 7:30 pm, at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse through July 14. Visit mvplayhouse.org for ticket information.