|Sarah Elizabeth Bedard & Jade Ziane in"Intimate Exchanges"|
(photo: Nora Theatre)
Convoluted plots are what one expects in any work by Alan Ayckbourn, one of Britain's most prolific playwrights since the Bard of Avon, author of no fewer than 81 plays thus far. One also typically anticipates an ingenious gimmick, such as simultaneous plays performed in separate theaters (as with House and Garden). This is especially true of his Intimate Exchanges, now being presented by Nora Theatre at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, a play which was completed in 1983 (his twenty-ninth play), in which Ayckbourn tells several of eight major stories after a single opening scene, depending on how the audience votes. It's rather like the concept with “Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Shear Madness”, but on steroids. The mind boggles at the possible permutations and combinations that are permuted and combined, something like thirty-one possible scenes, sixteen hours, with ten characters all played by one female and one male actor. In this production, the options are more limited (the audience gets to vote solely for the final scene) but are nonetheless challenging for the cast of two, who are Jade Ziane and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Directed by Olivia D'Ambrosio at primarily breakneck speed. It's about how the smallest, seemingly insignificant and even careless choices we make each day can lead to unexpected disastrous consequences.
The two options being produced by Nora Theatre are the stories titled Celia, after Celia Teasdale (a rather horny upper class matron), and Sylvie, after Sylvie Bell (love the name?), her part-time “help”, a lower class lass with hidden aspirations. The remaining characters are male, consisting of Celia's tippling husband Toby (headmaster of Bilbury Lodge Preparatory School, where he and Celia live, with shades of Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), their randy handyman and gardener Lionel, and his wheelchair-bound father Joe, the former gardener and decidedly amateur poet (in an uncomfortably tremor-filled turn). Before the performance begins, a ghost light (now a symbol of resistance from the arts community) illuminates the playing area and Ziane, setting the stage, urges us to “sit forward”. There follows a two-hour production once described by an actor as “an orgy of drama”. And a quick-change buffet of drama it is, with both actors getting and giving a real workout. Bedard and Ziane both look totally unlike the first characters they play (the upper class Teasdales) when they change garb and gab for their other characters on the lower rungs of the social ladder. They are also more audible and believable as the cockney types than as the more polished ones who speak as though their mouths were full of marbles (which, on second thought, might be their point). Their work, under D'Ambrosio's direction, is mostly delightful even when the dialogue becomes fairly banal, surprising for Ayckbourn. Of the two offerings, Celia and Sylvie, the latter is by far the more involving, ahead of its time with a definite feminist bent, very appropriate for Nora Theatre and for these productions, with contributions by the several female creative team members. The Scenic Design by Anne Sherer is geared for whatever choices are made, as are the Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski and Sound Design by Nathan Leigh, all of them cleverly adaptable. Mention should be made of the prominent role of the Properties Coordinator, Esme Allen, not to be divulged here.
This is far from Ayckbourn's best work, but intriguing enough for a rewarding visit. The two plays are best seen together, though Sylvie, as noted above, is the better written one, suggesting her role of an Eliza Doolittle type as first looking through a letter box on a door, then having the door opened for her. These productions offer welcome diversion for what Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner notes in the program, namely from the future as we ourselves face an uncertain political landscape. Sit forward, indeed.