Came & Conquered

Skyler Reid/Staff

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The word "trilogy" is often associated with books like "Lord of the Rings," but rarely with contemporary theater. The simple reason is that getting people to see three plays in a row presents quite a challenge. Shotgun Players has made the bold choice to present Alan Ayckbourn's three-play cycle "The Norman Conquests" on the Ashby Stage. Running in repertory, "Table Manners," "Living Together" and "Round & Round the Garden" will rotate through the theater for nine performances each.

The trilogy made a strong opening last Friday with "Table Manners," directed by Joy Carlin. On the surface this piece follows a well-established formula: A group of people, variously related, gather together for a "quiet weekend" at an English country house. A series of misunderstandings, miscommunications and tangled affections emerge as circumstance force the characters into closer quarters. Family secrets are divulged and hilarity ensues. It has been done before.

However, Ayckbourn has succeeded in boiling the farce genre down to its essential elements. There are no slamming doors or people caught in their underwear; instead most of the humor turns on the characters themselves, who are hilariously well drawn. Annie and Tom, who live on the estate, are clearly in love but so desperately shy that their attraction is driving them crazy. Norman flagrantly cheats on his wife Ruth to get her attention. Sarah is determined to organize everyone's lives, but only succeeds in giving herself a near nervous breakdown. Farce is about the tension between people's desires and their sense of decorum; Ayckbourn clearly understands this.

As the title might indicate, "Table Manners" is a play about appetites. The characters are kept both literally and figuratively hungry. Not expecting so many people, Annie (played with ingenious simplicity by Zehra Berkman) has hardly any food in the house for her guests; they are forced to forage for scraps and share the meager portions grudgingly. But they are also emotionally hungry. Each couple seems to be withholding from one another the love they both crave.

Norman, for whose conquests the cycle is named, has an almost insatiable romantic appetite. He compulsively propositions every female onstage. As for his wife, it seems he has used up all of her love, leaving her tight-lipped and emotionally absent, and is hungry for more. Sarah Mitchell attacks this role with droll hauteur. Richard Reinholdt (as Norman) lays it on a bit thicker, playing his part with the pomp and swagger of one who knows he is the star of the show.

One of the more striking aspects of the play lies in the absence of any real physical obstacles or motivations. Ostensibly they have all come to stay with the family matriarch, however this mythical mother figure never appears onstage. Similarly one feels that Norman's dalliances will be the play's central conflict, however Ruth, it seems, could not care less. It is as though Ayckbourn is reluctant to give his characters any good reason for their actions. He succeeds in pointing out that people often don't need a good reason to behave like fools.

As farces go, this one is extremely well-executed. Director Carlin delivers the piece with a suitably light touch. She makes use of a simple and elegant brand of physical comedy throughout, which is easy to watch and easy to believe. Though this play is only one in a cycle it stands well on its own, while still sparking one's curiosity as to what will happen next.

Get caught in your underwear by Gwen at [email protected]

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