Sunday, August 29, 2010

Excellent Ensemble Work

Much of the past week was spent being entertained by the talented artists who belong to Berkeley's Shotgun Players. Last Sunday, I attended an outdoor performance of In The Wound (Jon Tracy's thrilling new adaptation of The Iliad). At three subsequent performances I had an opportunity to enjoy the company's staging of Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy, The Norman Conquests.

Reg (Mike Mize) and Sarah (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) in
The Norman Conquests (Photo by: Robin Phillips)

Written in 1973, The Norman Conquests consists of three plays which take place simultaneously in different parts of a home in suburban England. In 1975, the three plays had a brief New York run at the Morosco Theatre with a cast that included Richard Benjamin (Norman), Ken Howard (Tom), Barry Nelson (Reg), Estelle Parsons (Sarah), Paula Prentiss (Annie), and Carole Shelley (Ruth).

I don't know why the production didn't last longer (it's possible that Ayckbourn's sense of humor didn't travel across the Atlantic particularly well during the 1970s). But as seen in the Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, The Norman Conquests is an unbelievably satisfying theatrical treat. The six characters in Ayckbourn's farce are:
  • Norman (Richard Reinholdt), an unmanageable man child who just wants to make everyone happy (Norman wouldn't hesitate to dry hump the sofa if he thought he could make it happy, too). An irrepressible spirit locked in the body of big, cuddly bear, Norman is like a small tornado that causes chaos wherever he goes. Much of Norman's unpredictable behavior is linked to his undying hunger to be the center of attention.
  • Ruth (Sarah Mitchell), Norman's caustic wife. A successful, overworked businesswoman who has learned not to take Norman's antics too seriously, Ruth has an acid tongue. She can quickly deflate someone's ego with her withering remarks. Because she is horribly nearsighted (and too vain to wear her glasses), Ruth is constantly bumping into things and trying to compensate for her myopia.
  • Annie (Zehra Berkman), Ruth's younger sister. Annie is the frumpiest member of the family. Most of her time is devoted to caring for her aging, depressed mother (who, in her youth, apparently behaved quite scandalously). Although Annie is in desperate need of a vacation, she doesn't seem to have much luck communicating her needs to men.
  • Tom (Josiah Polhemus), Annie's lunkheaded neighbor. A veterinarian who communicates much better with animals than with humans, Tom is about as dense as they come. Unable to express his true feelings for Annie, he fumbles every opportunity that comes his way. He is a master of not saying anything.
  • Reg (Mick Mize), Ruth and Annie's brother. Terribly henpecked and horribly emasculated, it doesn't take much to make Reg happy. He doesn't get many moments of happiness from his wife or children.
  • Sarah (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), Reg's shrewish wife. Sarah is a horrible control freak and insufferable megalomaniac with a severe martyrdom complex. She's the kind of mother who can't stop condescending to women who have not had children. In short, Sarah's a royal pain in the ass.
Richard Reinholdt as Norman (Photo by: Robin Phillips)

Ayckbourn's trilogy presents an irresistible challenge for actors (who occasionally get to perform all three plays in one day). While the challenge for the set designer (Shotgun's Nina Ball) was fairly straightforward, managing rehearsals and performances at the Ashby Stage while the company is also performing In The Wound with a cast of 30 over at John Hinkel Park is a monumental scheduling and logistical challenge for such a small company.

In order to spread the responsibility around, Joy Carlin directed Table Manners, Mina Morita directed Round And Round The Garden, and Molly Aaronson-Gelb directed Living Together (the plays were performed in that order on "marathon" days). Although the entire ensemble did a superb job, I found myself particularly smitten with Sarah Mitchell's acerbic portrayal of Ruth and Mick Mize's deft comic timing as Reg. The scene in which everyone at the breakfast table tries to ignore Norman is simply priceless.

Tom (Josiah Polehums), Sarah (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), Reg (Mick Mize),
and Annie (Zehra Berkman) in a scene from the Shotgun Players'
production of The Norman Conquests. (Photo by: Robin Phillips)

Because the Ashby Stage barely seats 150 people at any performance, Ayckbourn's plays benefit from an extra measure of intimacy. Gestures and lines that might otherwise need to be telegraphed to the audience in a larger theatre (as they were in A.C.T.'s recent production of Round And Round The Garden) took place on stage sets where the dining and living rooms were approximately the same size one would expect them to be in a home like Annie's.

The result was astonishing. Even during some of the most histrionic moments (and there are plenty in Ayckbourn's trilogy) -- and when it was obvious that people were "acting" -- the audience still felt like they were having that cherished "fly on the wall" experience in the midst of a dysfunctional family meltdown.

Sarah Mitchell as Ruth in The Norman Conquests
(Photo by: Robin Phillips)

As I sat through the Shotgun Players' production of The Norman Conquests, I couldn't help wondering how Ayckbourn's trilogy might work if performed by an all-male cast. It would require a certain amount of tweaking the script for Table Manners, but with the number of gay couples adopting children these days, the characters and situations would still play remarkably well from a gay angle.

The Norman Conquests has been extended through Sunday, September 12.  You can order tickets here.

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