Go to the theater often enough, and you'll see great productions of bad plays, terrible productions of great plays, great theater that has little to do with dramaturgy, nearly unendurable plays in great need of a dramaturge, and, once in a while, great productions of great plays. In other words, there isn't a formula, but the best theater often starts with a deep, almost missionary passion for the play and its author. In this sense, Joking Apart Theater's staging of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests has a lot going for it. Actor Edwin Strout, the company's artistic director, is probably the Twin Cities' biggest fan of the playwright, a satirist of bourgeois England and occasional farceur who has been called the most popular British playwright since Noël Coward.
"I've been fascinated by Ayckbourn ever since I did How the Other Half Loves at Park Square in 1992," says Strout over some post-rehearsal beers at the Green Mill in Uptown. Short but somewhat barrel-chested, the actor is often called on for oversized characters, and his room-filling energy takes over when he talks about Ayckbourn. "The great thing about him is, he keeps pushing the envelope for theater. How the Other Half Loves has two houses set on the same stage. In House and Garden you have two shows going on at exactly the same time. And he writes all this stuff in two weeks!" Strout gushes.
Ayckbourn's plays range from farces to moody comedies, and, as Strout notes, are often marked by novel structural devices, which often involve telling the same tale from a variety of vantages. The 30 scenes from Intimate Exchanges, for example, can be shuffled to create 16 variations of the same play. The Norman Conquests, which premiered at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre to great success in 1973, is composed of three six-character plays--Table Manners, Living Together, and Round and Round the Garden--all of which take place on the same weekend and show different versions of the same disastrous series of events. Strout, who excels at playing cads, stars as Norman, a sex-starved librarian who's either married to or trying to seduce the show's three women (he's mainly after his wife's sister, a hanky-panky strategy disapproved by most British marriage counselors).
In the States, Ayckbourn's work is often played as farce, which Strout thinks is generally the wrong approach. "Most of it didn't work here, and I couldn't tell why. So my now-ex said, 'You know, you love this man so much, and you want to do his work properly, why don't you just contact the theater and say you want an internship?'" In the spring and summer of 2001, Strout did an unpaid internship at the Stephen Joseph, where Ayckbourn is the artistic director. One of the main lessons Strout took away from the experience was not to over-Anglicize Ayckbourn's plays--not to play them as cute or larger than life, but to keep things subtle and to give equal weight to the shows' silly and serious elements. The Norman Conquests includes bawdy misunderstandings and mishaps common to bedroom farce, but is also a realistic portrait of six lonely people. Earlier this year, the company put on a fluid production of Acykbourn's Absent Friends, a living-room black comedy in which the happiest character is the guy whose fiancée recently drowned.
Since Ayckbourn is known for chancy ideas such as letting a play's next scene be chosen by coin toss, he is sometimes dismissed as a gimmick artist, which Strout thinks misses the point. "Some actors have gotten his scripts and said, This isn't funny, and then they've gotten through the first read-through, and they realize it is funny. It doesn't read well off the page, and it seems like the 'gimmick' is all they've got going, but it's not. What's great about his plays is that they're all about relationships, whether it's family, or would-be lovers, or husband and wife. And it's real. What I learned in England is that farce is extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and comedy is ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances."