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.