Sunday, August 24, 2008

Intimate Exchanges - ACT

Intimate Exchanges
A Contemporary Theatre
August 15-September 14, 2008
Tickets and Information

ACT’s Intimate Exchanges is an immense undertaking, though at first glance it may not seem so. The play opens chronicling the desires and frustrations of six 20th century middle-class English characters: Toby and Celia (a headmaster of a private school and his wife), Lionel and Sylvie (the school’s caretaker and Celia’s house help), and Miles Coombs and Irene Pridworthy (school board members).

However, the play is not as simple as the surface it presents: a witty and ridiculous comedy about English society becomes rather a free-fall into fate and free-will, as director Kurt Beattie would have it. The play has only one opening scene; but as writer Alan Ayckbourn constructs it, there are two second scenes, two paths to be taken depending on what choice the characters make. From each of those second scenes two more could occur—and so on, for a total of four possible endings. (The full script splits enough to give out sixteen endings, but ACT keeps the choices limited—wisely so, for both the actors’ sanity and the length of the run.)

(R. Hamilton Wright as Lionel and Marianne Owen as Irene; photo credit Chris Bennion)

Even more impressive perhaps than the structure is the acting, given that all six characters are played by only two actors: the admirable Seattle favorites Marianne Owen and R. Hamilton Wright. Their stage chemistry is undeniable, and the comedy of the show relies partly on their ability to play off each other. The rest of the hilarity of the show stems from Owen and Wright’s neverending energy, quick changes and crystal-cut character switches. Owen begins the show as the emotionally frustrated and slightly inept housewife Celia, in conversation with Wright’s charismatically awkward Lionel. Midway through the scene Celia leaves and not but 30 seconds later Sylvie enters—different look, different accent, wildly different mannerisms, and of course, a different relationship to Lionel. Wright opens the second scene as Toby, Celia’s husband, a world-weary alcoholic on the other end of the spectrum from the dreamer Lionel. The switching and flopping of characters becomes even funnier and more amazing in the second act, where the last two characters are introduced, and Owen and Wright never stop moving among six different characters, each as different as can be, and each as clearly drawn and perfected as the previous one. (Owen’s first turn as “the officious Irene Pridworthy” garnered literally non-stop laughter and full applause.) There are innumerable points throughout the play when it is hard to believe that these actually are only two actors, and that knowledge adds to the enjoyment of watching these stage veterans creating what can only be described as a roller-coaster of English comedy.

Another aspect that must be mentioned is the technical side of the show. For a play that is really four wholly different plays, the set, lights, costumes and most especially the crew must be ready for any of the options that could present itself. Thomas Lynch’s set is simple but varied: a large black backdrop with doors and windows able to open (we saw three that did; there were many more that surely are used on other nights), and a grassy stage in front. Added to that, brought in and out by stage hands, elevators and fly lines, are set pieces such as a garden shed and bushes, tables and chairs, a tent ceiling and drapery, and—one of the funniest moments of the play—a whole yard full of gravestones that all pop up out of the ground simultaneously. Marcia Dixcy Jory’s costumes are quietly impressive, in that they all must have been quick to change out of, and yet look entirely normal, suited to each character. And a kudos must be given to the stage hands and dressers (some of whom were given a bow at the end of the show, a rarity), who were working non-stop behind the scenes to help keep the show running cleanly.

Given the strange and open structure, it is difficult to review the actual play itself. As a story only on its own, the version we saw the other night lacked some satisfaction and finesse toward the end. As one possible cog in the machine of human choices and decisions, however, it becomes much more interesting and rewarding; you begin to imagine what else might have happened instead, if Celia had just chosen something else, or if Lionel had not done one thing. This, of course, is the cleverness of ACT’s choice in staging this play: not only to showcase two incredible actors and a passel of talented crew, but to keep audiences wondering and returning to the theater for another side of the story, another version of the chaos of human life.

(Review by Lia Morgan)

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