Friday, December 7, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Season's Greetings"

Full disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

With laughs coming a-mile-a-minute throughout its two-and-a-half-hours, the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Season's Greetings cements its inaugural season as one of the best in town. Director Fiona Macleod has an excellent group of actors at her disposal, many of whom are veterans of the local theatre scene. -- And while there may not be a star role in this play, each of the actors shines both individually and as an essential part of the talented ensemble.

It doesn't hurt that Alan Ayckbourn [arguably the most prolific contemporary British playwright -- to date, some 77 plays] has given them a brilliantly funny and insightful script that is a gift to actors who can create memorable performances from it. Danny Davidson's costumes give an appropriate period feel, and are clearly chosen to provide insights to the characters. As an added delight to emphasize the play's intimacy (we feel we are eavesdropping at the Playhouse), Ms. Macleod has chosen to stage it in-the-round as Ayckbourn first produced it in 1980 at the "Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round" in Scarborough, England. While there are no walls in the set, there are several rooms defined by furniture arrangement and carpeting; so, with simultaneous action in the various locations, we can follow the frenetic goings-on with one overall view.

An enormously popular play that is revived by professional and amateur theatres virtually every year, Ayckbourn resisted writing yet another feel-good Christmas-is-for-children play but decided to do this one where the children are nearby but always off-stage and the adults behave like children on-stage.

It is the 1980s in Yorkshire, England, and Neville and Belinda Bunker are hosting a family and friends Christmas weekend where, in the playwright's words, "people who can't stand each other are forced together!" Theirs is a monotonous marriage; Neville spends more time in his workshop with his friend Eddie who escapes there to avoid his pregnant wife Pattie and their other offspring; Neville's alcoholic sister Phyllis has taken over the kitchen while her ineffectual doctor-husband Bernard prepares his annual dreaded puppet show for the children; Neville's Uncle Harvey commandeers the television and guards the area in the belief that the weapons that are his Christmas presents are necessary for protection against a yet-unseen enemy; and Belinda's spinster-sister Rachel has invited Clive -- an author and the only outsider (and consequently a romanticized curiosity to the group) -- to join them. "Just an average family Christmas", says Ayckbourn.

Perhaps not "average", though their circumstances and situations are commonly shared this side of the Atlantic; and yes, these are not very nice people -- just like children, they fight over inconsequential things, seek attention, bully one another, sneak around, are casually insensitive to the needs of others; and as adults, they judge success or failure by material things, prefer to let their drunkenness be an excuse for their moral infidelities; and like both, they kiss and make up  by the end.

Mariah Reilly returns to the stage as Belinda after too long a hiatus since her days at Huntingdon College, and creates one of the most natural and physically comfortable characterizations along with Lee Bridges' Neville; completely credible as husband and wife, their unspoken communication [or lack thereof] as well as an occasional quiet scene settles the often madcap pace of the play. And Mr. Bridges' mastery of the Yorkshire dialect is a standout among the inconsistent or sporadic standard British accents from some of the cast.

The friction between Eddie and Pattie is disarmingly frank at the hands of Jason Morgan and Jesse Alston; her persistence and his sporadic rage are both ridden with frustration -- his from lack of a job to provide for his growing family, and hers from confusion or ignorance of what is bothering her husband.

Mike Winkelman [an eleventh-hour substitute for hospitalized cast member David Hendrick] is all bluster and bravado as the lunatic Uncle Harvey. As he begins to suspect Clive of being a thief, he becomes more and more a sinister presence, issuing cryptic warnings to all.

Bill Nowell and Layne Holley are each so watchable as the childless couple Bernard and Phyllis. As he escapes from reality in producing the annual puppet show [be warned...his version of "The Three Little Pigs" has a lengthy preparation and is well worth the wait], and she escapes to booze [one of the most hilarious stage-drunks you'll ever see and by itself worth the price of admission], there is also no doubt that they love one another, as each comes to the other's rescue just in time.

As Rachel, Renea Dijab allows us to grasp her conflicted feelings for Clive [Kalonji Gilchrist]. Does she or doesn't she want a romantic relationship? or is a Platonic relationship even possible? As he attempts to figure her out, Mr. Gilchrist's Clive claims to be an average man, but gets the attention of both Phyllis [who is infatuated by his celebrity as a novelist, and in her drunken haze concludes that he is a homosexual], and by Belinda [who needs a man to pay attention to her].

When a midnight tryst between Clive and Belinda under the Christmas tree is thwarted by their triggering numerous gadgets and noisy toys, rousing the sleeping household and bringing potential doom to the holiday, what's left is to restore peace and harmony and the good will of the season, though not without some delightfully impulsive cost.

Audiences need to pay strict attention to all of the evening's proceedings; as split-scenes focus our eyes and witty dialogue garners huge laughs, it is sometimes challenging to see or hear everything. But there is no doubt that the combination of Ayckbourn's merry script, the astute direction by Ms. Macleod, and the antic ensemble performances make this production of Season's Greetings an excellent holiday treat.