- Courtesy Of Emmy Walden Fox
- Lyn Philistine and Christopher Sutton
A bed sits at center stage in ArtisTree Music Theatre Festival's production of I Do! I Do! With a floral quilt and an ornately carved wooden frame, it ties a stately master bedroom together, drawing focus throughout the two-person musical. The dominant and versatile set piece remains a constant as characters Agnes (Lyn Philistine) and Michael (Christopher Sutton) live through 50 years of marriage. It's a place to come together, live out fantasies, dance, fall apart and find stability again.
Directed by Gary John La Rosa, the 1966 musical comes to life in South Pomfret's Grange Theatre. The 90-seat playhouse provides a cozy atmosphere and puts the audience exceptionally close to the action.
Written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, masterminds of The Fantasticks, I Do! I Do! is unconventional in some noteworthy ways. Its two-person cast runs counter to the era's trend of large ensembles, as seen in Hello, Dolly! and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
I Do! I Do! also satirizes love and marriage with a much gentler touch than those popular shows do. It empathetically examines marital norms, infidelity, loneliness and companionship through two acts chock-full of lively musical numbers.
We meet Agnes and Michael as hopeful fiancés on the eve of their nuptials. Eager and naïve, the pair dives headfirst into marriage, blissfully unaware of what it takes to stay together for the long haul.
At the top of Act 1, Agnes and Michael don't know each other very well, as was normal at the turn of the 20th century, when the show takes place. Neither has much experience with love or sex, but they enthusiastically embrace their new life together. On their wedding night, Michael's simple act of removing Agnes' shoe and stroking her foot is a tender and charged moment. The intimate gesture breaks the ice, and their partnership begins in earnest.
Before long, Agnes is pregnant. But after eight months, Michael is the debilitated one, not the engorged, lumbering Agnes. He lies in bed with sympathy pains, oblivious to his wife's very real discomfort. It's our first glimpse of Michael's egotism and complacency, a trait that grows more prominent as he gains success as a novelist.
Agnes gives birth to a son and a daughter in rapid succession, all the while growing bitter in response to Michael's neglect. They confront each other with a litany of grievances. The conflict reaches a boiling point when Michael reveals that he has been having an affair. Though she considers leaving him, Agnes decides to stay — for now.
Act 2 finds Agnes and Michael still together, seemingly healed from the strain of Michael's affair. Their kids are older and stirring up trouble for their parents, who are reluctant to see them grow up. Soon the children come of age and get married, much to their parents' disillusionment.
As empty nesters, Agnes and Michael ponder what's next for them. Without children to keep them together, will they find reasons to stay? As each examines what it means to be self-reliant as well as dependent on the other, they find that love is worth fighting for.
Philistine and Sutton, a real-life married couple, deliver energetic and engaging performances that never flag. Both members of Actors' Equity Association, they have a chemistry that drives the comedic numbers as much as it does the tender moments. With brilliant physicality, they hurtle full-bodied through moments both joyful and somber, brandishing facial expressions that use every muscle.
Each boasts an excellent singing voice perfectly matched to the lavish musical style of I Do! I Do! Accompanied by a modest remote-pit orchestra performing in a nearby barn, Philistine and Sutton take fluid jaunts from song to song. They revel as much in bouncy numbers full of snappy lyrics and witty barbs as in anthemic torch songs steeped in emotion.
Though the show is set between 1898 and 1948, not much in the script pins it to that era. A modernized set and wardrobe wouldn't come off as anachronistic. Nonetheless, scenic designer Christian Kohn roots the show in the not-too-distant past, adorning the master bedroom with antique armchairs, books, crystal decanters, perfume bottles and other bric-a-brac.
The room's walls are stenciled with an elaborate gold-leaf pattern on a base of deep red that calls to mind emotional fervor and humanity. After all, blood rushes to the cheeks after a first kiss and, ahem, gives "rise" to passion.
La Rosa, who also choreographed the show, uses the small space well, leaving about 40 square feet on the lip of the stage for his actors to dance a soft shoe or two.
Lighting designer Curtis Shields captures a life lived at all hours. Two gas-lamp sconces pulse on opposite sides of the set. Early morning sun and full moonlight splash the set through a fourth wall full of imaginary windows.
Sartorially, the characters' looks range from just-risen to coiffed for a cocktail party. Costumers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case assembled period looks that change as the story progresses from early to mid-20th century. The couple's sleepwear fashions say as much about the era as any of the ensembles. On their wedding night, Michael wears a thoroughly unsexy Ebenezer Scrooge-style cotton nightshirt, Agnes a dowdy nightgown. Decades on, both have upgraded to silky pajamas.
Some may assume that ArtisTree picked a marriage story to mount the weeks before and after Valentine's Day, but in fact the show was originally planned for September 2020. The reason for its postponement should be obvious.
Given the inescapable scrutiny of love, sex and relationships that hits every year in mid-February, I Do! I Do! arrives just when people are most likely to be pondering their own relationships. More than an amusing diversion, the musical offers couples and singles alike a timely examination of love and what it takes to sustain it.