Trinity Rep's "House" and "Garden": You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Trinity Rep’s final offering of the current season is a pair of intimately connected works by prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (who has more plays to his name than Heinz has varieties), entitled “House” and “Garden”. (For the record, they are the fifty-fourth and fifty-fifth of his seventy-seven plays, and he’s still actively writing more). The cast of both plays includes Trinity’s resident company members Angela Brazil, Janice Duclos, Phyllis Kay, Anne Scurria, Fred Sullivan Jr., Steven Thorne, and Joe Wilson, Jr., as well as Mary C. Davis, Barry M. Press, Catherine Dupont, Stephen Jaehnert, Barbara Meek, Ted Moller and Bridget Saracino. This is no coincidence, as both plays revolve around the same characters and are designed to be performed simultaneously. Literally, that is. The basic gimmick is that “House” is being presented in the (larger, upstairs) Chace Theater, while “Garden” is performed in the (smaller, downstairs) Dowling Theater. This means that when a character makes her or his exit from the set of “House”, she or he may almost immediately be making an entrance onto the set of “Garden”, and vice versa. This results in a hilarious, almost metaphysically impossible challenge for both an audience’s attention span and the actors’ fluidity (not to say athleticism), even more demanding of one’s concentration than the somewhat similar concept seen in the past in such works as “Noises Off”.

Far more than a gimmick, however, these interrelated plays provide not only the expected Ayckbourn trademark laughs, but have other rewards for the theatergoer who approaches them with sufficient concentration, as though conquering a tricky crossword puzzle. The author, who actually considers them one play, has described this dual effort as his realization that “we’re all walk-on players in other people’s lives”. They involve a garden party, arranged by villagers Lindy and Barry Love (Davis and Moller), being conducted on the grounds of the home of the Platts, Teddy (Sullivan), Trish (Scurria) and their daughter Sally (Saracino), with Teddy being courted to run for a position as an MP. The luncheon is for visiting film star Lucille Cadeau (Kay), and what a gift she is, with her driver Fran (Meek) in tow, as well as novelist Gavin Ryng-Marie (Wilson), with neighbors such as Dr. Giles Mace (Thorne), his wife Joanna (Brazil) and their son Jake (Jaehnert); also on hand are the housekeeper Izzie (Duclos) and her daughter Pearl (Dupont), as well as the gardener Warn (Press). How all these characters interact (and do they ever) form the basis for both plays, with “House” featuring some of them in lead roles, “Garden” featuring others in leads. It’s a head-spinning experience, rather like a carousel that the little kid in all of us never wants to stop. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and what a wonderful ride.

In such a large company, it’s difficult to highlight the work of particular actors lest one miss any gems, but in the best-written roles, Scurria and Sullivan in “House”, and Brazil, Davis, Kay, Moller and Thorne in “Garden”, all get a chance to shine. With a cast of twenty-one (which includes a mini-ensemble of seven enjoyable moppets), that’s a lot of sunshine, though Ayckbourn has some thunder clouds of seriousness in store as well. Some standout moments include the controlled but hysterically funny hysteria of Thorne, the ditzy dizziness of Davis, and the deadpan dialect every time Moller opens his mouth. Then there’s the scene in “House” when Sullivan sits in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in “Garden” when there’s Morris and Maypole dancing, and general chaos. As meticulously directed by Brian McEleney, (himself a member of the resident Acting Company for the past thirty years), both this company and its guest artists are in fine form and look as though they’re having a fine time meeting the challenges. The Set Design by Eugene Lee is one of his best yet, with the perfect drawing room for a British manor “House” (all antlers and portraits of Platts past) and the colorful details of a typical English “Garden” fete (with a well-timed fountain just one of the clever touches). The Costume Design by William Lane (another logistical triumph) and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz contribute to the merry mayhem. The Lighting Design by Bryon Winn is fine, though it doesn’t change appreciably during the ten-hour span of the day depicted in both plays.

If you’re a serious theatergoer who enjoys farcical fare but thinks you’ve seen it all, think again. This is a truly unique, totally original and brilliantly conceived pair of creations. One piece of advice: be sure to see both plays, as near in time to one another as possible. Either play can stand on its own, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. They’re the very definition of the word synergy: seeing both will more than double your fun. As Scurria proclaims at the onset of “House”, more of a threat than a promise, “life pays you back”. Later she alludes to getting entangled in the ribbons of the Maypole, unable to let go. And, as both Scurria and Sullivan wistfully sum up the day’s events, each one alone at the ends of the respective plays, “Well, that’s life I suppose.” Well, all right, that’s theater, one supposes, and great theater at that. So what are you waiting for? Subscribe to this “House” and “Garden”.

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