Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: AUGUST 13, 2010
Meet the English theater’s master puzzlemaker – in triplicate. Sir Alan Ayckbourn loves to play with plays. Of his 73 full-length creations, one has 16 possible endings, one is two plays taking place simultaneously on two different stages. And then there’s “The Norman Conquests.” No, it has nothing to do with the Battle of Hastings or William the Conqueror. It’s about zhlubby Norman , the almost-conqueror. The 1973 trilogy takes three perspectives on one wacky weekend. We view the proceedings from three different locations: the living room, dining room and garden. Actions overlap across plays, and aren’t presented sequentially. So all the puzzling out and putting together has to be done by the audience. Each of the plays can stand alone, but it’s especially juicy to see them all – either on consecutive nights, or as I did, in one 6-hour marathon, with breaks for lunch and dinner in between.
It’s a gutsy structure, tackled by a fearless group. Cygnet Theatre Company is launching its 8th season with a 16-week rotating repertory run of “The Norman Conquests.” If you see ‘ em all on one day, you can even get a t-shirt that says “I Conquered Norman.”
Norman is a scruffy, oversexed assistant librarian, who uncontrollably loves the ladies – even if he’s related to them by marriage. On this particular weekend, he’s arranged for a tryst with his wife’s sister. But when that goes awry, he makes a play for his other sister-in-law. He winds up rolling on the floor with each of them, and even seducing his hard-edged wife. All he wants to do is make people happy, he says. And all that results is chaos and commotion.
It would be pretty hard to make this miserable lot happy anyway. Each is staggeringly self-involved and discontent, mired in the monotony of their marriage and/or other relationships. When they all get together at the family’s big, old run-down Victorian country house, sparks fly, egos are bruised and tempers ignite. Just another weekend with the extended family, a neurotic collection of weak, ineffectual men and brittle, shrewish women. Ayckbourn has never taken a particularly positive view of marriage, and this assemblage scrapes the bottom of the matrimonial barrel.
Sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? But it’s really ripping good fun. The six-members of the crackerjack ensemble are superb, under the hair-trigger-timed direction of Sean Murray and Francis Gercke. The set transforms wonderfully, and the sound, lighting and costumes are delightful. Do I have a favorite? Well, “Round and Round the Garden” has the first and last scenes of the weekend; “Table Manners” clarifies the relationships best. But I think I laughed the most in “Living Together.”
See them in any order, but see them — if you want to get some acid-laced guffaws.
The three installments of “The Norman Conquests” run in repertory through November 7, at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town .
©2010 PAT LAUNER