Theater troupe with British flair offers play about retired opera singers

Duke Madalenna 4 copy QuartetAngela Cannon (left) and Peter Harrold (right) rehearse opera in British Players’ “Quartet.” COURTESY PHOTO  It’s probably not often a foreign embassy launches and, for a time, houses a theatrical group. But such were the origins of The British Players, a community theater that started at the British Embassy.

“There are a large number of British ex-pats here who were looking for a niche,” said Matthew Ratz, director of “Quartet,” the Players’ upcoming production. “But after 9/11, security considerations made it impossible to have open-attendance events.”

After moving to a few locations, The British Players settled at Kensington Town Hall.

The troupe stages several productions a year – a pantomime around Christmastime; a music-hall show; and a traditional play that could be a farce, comedy, drama, or murder mystery.

The Players focus not on Shakespeare but on contemporary British works.

“Quartet” is the story of four former opera singers living in a senior residence in England.

The title refers to the quartet in Verdi’s tragic opera “Rigoletto.” which they sing every year on October 10 to celebrate the composer’s birthday.

“The script touched me immediately,” Ratz said. “I started visualizing how it would look if I directed it.”

Ronald Harwood wrote both the play and the film loosely based on it, which Dustin Hoffman directed. But they contain different plotlines, endings, and cast sizes.

“The play has four characters, though they mention a great many people they’ve known,” said Ratz. “In the film these people actually appear.”

When he presented the staging of “Quartet” to the board of The British Players, their first question was: “You’re an American, do you get all the jokes?”

Fortuitously, Ratz had spent a year as an exchange student in Sheffield, England, and studied English literature.

Peter Harrold, one of two ex-pats in the cast, is a veteran performer with The British Players.

In “Quartet” he plays Reggie, a talented man who has grown angry with life, partly because of his brief, unhappy marriage to ex-wife Jean.

“It’s very sticky when she moves into the residence,” Harrold said.

In contrast, Jill Vanderweit, a Gaithersburg resident who portrays Jean, is making her debut with the Players. Angela Cannon (Cecily) and John Aullnut (Wilfred) round out the cast

Jean is a prima donna, formerly a huge opera star, who sees herself as a “star in the firmament,” said Vanderweit. “She can’t get over the fact that she no longer gets the attention she used to everywhere, even after her early retirement.”

Jean also has gone through several marriages – the first being with Reggie – and affairs.

Aside from the friction between the two ex-spouses, the play provides additional pathos in the story of Cecily, who is experiencing memory loss, as the others try to help her.

Vanderweit brings extensive musical theater experience to her role. What’s tough is “being able to pull on the British accent,” she said.

For Ratz, who is making his directorial debut in community theater, the transition from performer to director is the greatest challenge. “But with very skilled actors, like the ones I have, you can delegate, relinquish some control.”

Ratz won’t reveal if the four former opera singers end up singing the quartet for which they were famous.

“The dramatic action,” he said, “is really about the reclaiming of former glory.”

Vanderweit won’t reveal whether Jean and Reggie achieve more than friendly accommodation. She will say that despite some sad themes, “Quartet” is also “comic and hopeful.”

It was also a learning experience for Ratz. While preparing for the production, although not a particular opera fan before, he found joy in listening to classic recordings of “Rigoletto.”

“Quartet” runs March 9 through March 24 at Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell Street in Kensington. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 240-447-9863 or visit:



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