General 7-13-2004

Times Three: The Norman Conquests

Dean Seal found the three-part drama "The Norman Conquests" to be too good to miss--so don't miss it!

This is a rare theatrical event that anyone in the Minneapolis theater scene should flock to while you still can. Alan Ayckbourne has crafted a trilogy that is not sequential but concurrent; you can get the story from only seeing one play, but if you see all three you can get a fully rounded picture of the same weekend, from three different rooms.

The production is the brainchild of Ayckbourne fan Edwin Strout. Edwin took up a collection from his buddies and went to Ayckbourne’s theater to watch the master at his craft, and came back with the touchstone of how to stage the stuff. Ayckbourne’s comedies had not fared too well in the US because people tended to overact them.

I do not feel bad for Edwin Strout, and I never will again. He engineered the producer’s coup of staging a trilogy of plays by Alan Ayckbourn. He cast himself as Norman, the charming heel at the center of all three plays. All three plays stand on their own as funny pieces with a great set of funny actors. But the role of the cad includes the enviable job description of repeatedly kissing three fine specimens of gifted, funny, talented Minneapolis women who also are not too hard on the eyes. It’s the extras that keep us in this business. Innit?

Back to the shows. Ayckbourne has pulled off a writer’s coup in stitching together three plays out of one story. Table Manners takes place in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden- you guessed it. The house is the country estate where Norman has arranged to meet up with his sister-in-law for a naughty little getaway; only he gets there early, loses his reservation, and ends up at the house. He is discovered by his brother-in -law and his wife, whereupon the plot is discovered, the sister backs out, and the four of them are trapped together in the country house. Norman gets tanked on dandelion home-brew, and calls his wife, spills the beans, makes an idiot of himself, and now his wife is on the way.

This is a three-dimensional sex comedy that shows three women who are not happy. Annie (Karla Reck) is the dutiful sister at the house who has stayed on to care for mother, whom we never see. She is being courted shyly and painfully by the glacial Tom (David Tufford) who is all kindness and no thrills. Annie’s brother Reg (Dale Pfeilsticker) is a cheerful, mostly clueless (real) estate agent who admits that without a wife he would just slow down until he stopped moving entirely. In the meantime, he protests almost every request to stand up and do something, or argues about it, and while eventually doing what he’s told becomes a bit of a toothache before he yields.

His longsuffering and nervous wife Sarah (Corissa White) tries to be the in-law family member who makes the family become a Family, dammit, even though they have never gotten along before. Reg and Annie’s sister Ruth (Heather Stone) is the one who married Norman. She is distant and ambivalent about her marriage, her relationship to her family, and even to Norman’s incessant troublemaking.

What we get is that Annie could be happy if Tom swept her off her feet, but he doesn’t have a clue as to how. Norman wants to be Center Ring at every opportunity, and as his wife can’t possibly give him the attention he craves, he looks elsewhere. He finds the vulnerability in Annie, looks for the emotional button that is going to shake up her reasoning, and he pushes it. To great effect. Sarah is shocked, shocked by the proceedings; but when a drunken Norman steals a kiss from her in he garden, she gets what the noise is all about; at least Norman wants her in a way she wants to be wanted. The dirty little thrill of making out with a hound like Norman beats getting nothing at all.

Even Norman’s wife Ruth yields after a long talk about how badly behaved he is. Again, Norman has shaken her off of her career track for the evening, and he is proposing something naughty on the rug in front of the fireplace, and oh, well, what the hell.

I saw all three and loved it for what it was each time and what it was together. I had the pleasure of seeing some ambitious actors winning a bet with themselves. I asked Reck which shows they were doing on the following evening, and she sighed and said, “Oh, I don’t know. I’ll just look at the set when I come in and do the one they’re ready for.”

The intimate People’s Center Theater puts everyone in the same room with the actors, no no acting detail is lost. The plays were directed by three different directors, Zach Curtis (Table) Matt Sciple (Living) and Craig Johnson (Garden). These are three of the best actor directors in town, and for each of them to train the actor in a different side of the character in each play is, I think, a brilliant means by which the most can be gotten out of each show and each actor.

Again, kudos to each actor. Karla Reck as Annie is both the country innocent with the horsey laugh who is also desperate to escape the house and the Mom. She cannot resist the naughty blandishments of Norman because there is no other temptation to succumb to. She’s funny and vulnerable and explosive. Corissa White is the power-mad English Housewife who is used to asserting control over her children and ends up treating everyone like a child. But when Norman expresses concern for her delicate state, she begins to smolder with a fantasy of escape, starring Norman as the co-conspirator.

Heather Stone as Ruth is cold and distant, selfish enough to succeed on the job and call the shots at home because she brings home the bacon, and too selfish to give a damn if Norman misbehaves. Norman can swing her back in line with straightforward seduction, because she enjoys that too; she is too emotionally distant to care about the context of a cheating husband. She is icy, but she can be melted.

On to the men. Dale Pfeilsticker employs his comic skills at making an English twit likable, without making him less of a twit. David Tufford is stellar as the quiet, clueless lunk of a veterinarian who is taking a quater-eon to say to Annie that he cares about her. He is so gentle that he doesn’t know anything else; his killer deadpan in this play holds it together while everyone around him freaks.

And then there is Norman, Norman, Norman. Strout inhabits this childish, irresponsible blowhard, making every reversal believable, showing Norman’s unerring sense of timing and psychology as he angers, frustrates, and then converts each of the women in turn. He’s funny and he’s charming, he’s obnoxious and immature, but it all adds up to trying something out until he finds something that works. “Norman isn’t a wicked person,”said Strout with a wicked smile. “He just has these… opportunities. He just wants to make everyone happy!” Well, even though I didn’t get a kiss, Strout and company made me very happy. A satisfying bit of theatergoing that I would not want to miss, that. Innit?