Saturday, September 20, 2008

ACT's "Intimate Exchanges" entertains

Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges is a major challenge for actors. From a common opening scene, the show is eight different plays with 16 possible endings, all depending on choices made by characters at key junctions along the way. On top of that, the play is written for just two actors playing up to 10 different roles.

I was at Powell's Books in Portland a few weeks before we were to see Intimate Exchanges at Seattle's ACT Theatre, and combed the store's extensive drama collection for a script so that I could read the other versions and endings. Powell's didn't have it. Perhaps that's a good thing. I learned from a New York Times article about an off-Broadway revival of the show last spring that the whole shebang runs 750 pages -- longer, so they say, than Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth combined. The New York outfit, 59E59 Theaters, claimed to be the first in the U.S. to produce the work in its entirety.

ACT and director Kurt Beattie took on a reasonably manageable production, doing just four different endings. This still left actors Marianne Owen and R. Hamilton Wright playing six characters with 24 costumes and up to 30 quick changes during a performance. The speed with which they made the changes was amazing. These aren't just characters set apart from each other by a different scarf or cap. Owen and Wright make complete costume changes, including shoes and socks, often in very short trips offstage.

The main characters are Toby and Celia Teasdale, he the drunken headmaster of a British school, she his unhappy spouse. In the version we saw, Celia runs off and sets up a catering business (and romance) with Lionel Hepplewick, the school's groundskeeper and a self professed "master baker." (Ayckbourn occasionally gets a wee bit juvenile with his humor, but there's plenty of wit afoot.) Hepplewick is clearly not the baker he makes himself out to be, as their first big gig turns into a disaster of forgotten ingredients and inedible, rock-hard bread.

Both actors are outstanding, but I have to say that Owen steals the show with a couple of fabulous scenes, one in which main character Celia Teasdale goes off the deep end in a manic tea party under the tent on the school grounds, and the other as the old battle-ax Irene Pridworthy, who jolly well tells everyone how things ought to be. Pridworthy's staccato laugh -- HAH! -- put me in mind a bit of Andrea Martin's character Edith Prickley, the station manager on the old SCTV television series.

The play didn't really work all that well as a story. After the big breakdown scene, we pick up the characters five years later. Celia and Toby are split, he still at the school, she as a successful businesswoman. Lionel is her chauffeur. They're at a funeral -- the ending of several of the alternate plays. The performances are marvelous, and the work of the costume changes a sight to behold. Ayckbourn's fun with language is most entertaining as well. Intimate Exchanges is a madcap farce.

One wonders how differently an audience member would view the show after seeing more than one of the possible endings. After all, the whole 16-ending enchilada has some 17 hours of dialog, we're told. Alas, Weisenheimer took in just the one, which happened to be on the last weekend of the production. Seeing more than one might have given one a better sense of Ayckbourn's point that seemingly trivial decisions, and a big dose of fate, have a lot to do with the ending.

1 comment:

Holly G said...

In the ending I saw, Toby and Celia were still together. They, too, were at a funeral. Toby is now the caretaker of a very fragile Celia. Or at least that's what we think...until Toby leaves the stage for a minute and we realize that Celia is fully competent, but is thriving on having Toby wait on her hand and foot and believing she is delicate. Can't remember if he is still a headmaster or not.

Thanks for checking on the play. I was wondering why it cost so much on Amazon.