Monday, Dec. 10, 2007

The Milwaukee Rep's 'The Norman Conquests'

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Milwaukee Rep provides a welcome alternative to the usual Christmas holiday fare as director Joseph Hanreddy presents British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy The Norman Conquests.

The trilogy presents the same quiet weekend in the country as seen from three different locations: the garden, the sitting room and the dining room. The three plays rotate through the Quadracci powerhouse theatre for the better part of the next two months with talented local actor Gerard Nugent playing the title character: a charming librarian named Norman who is scheming to have an affair with his wife's sister. With Ayckbourn's acclaimed wit and insight into the nature of human relations, there's little doubt that The Norman Conquests is worth seeing at least once, but as each play is a self-contained, stand alone production, its nature as a trilogy may be little more than a curiosity for anyone not interested in committing to more than one of the plays.

"A big part of our success will depend on our making each play clear enough to stand on its own, and yet make each additional play that an audience member chooses to see exponentially funnier," says Rep artistic director Joseph Hanreddy, "As a result, we're constantly keeping the dynamics of the entire trilogy in mind as we rehearse each individual play."

With a cast consisting almost entirely of Rep resident actors (Laura Gordon, Torrey Hanson, Deborah Staples) this could be a production worth seeing from a couple of different angles. The Rep originally staged the trilogy over a dozen years ago in its studio theatre with Lee Ernst in the title role. Ernst returns to the play as the dim-witted Tom. This is the first holiday season in several that Ernst hasn't donned the spectacles as Scrooge in the Rep's A Christmas Carol—a situation which must by now be a welcome change of pace for Ernst.

The Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove presents a parody of Milwaukee's longest-running Christmas play as it presents a production of The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production Of "A Christmas Carol" The British comedy, which debuted at the Edingburgh Fringe Festival in 1988, features four middle-class housewives playing all the role in Dickens' classic.

The comic potential in the premise is pretty obvious. There is undeniable comedy in decent drama being poorly performed. When drama is deliberately performed for comic effect, however, it can often fall flat. Two years ago, the Milwaukee Rep's production of Charles Morey's amateur summer theatre parody Laughing Stock had a somewhat weak comic element. A short time later, Windfall Theatre's production of Don Nigro's amateur Shakespeare parody The Curate Shakespeare As You Like It fared only slightly better.

It's perfectly alright to laugh (albeit quietly) at performances that are honestly bad, but when someone deliberately tries to put in a lousy performance, something is lost. The Sunset Playhouse has had an excellent track record for comedy in the recent past. Last year, its production of Five Women Wearing The Same Dress directed by Jonathan West was one of the best comedies in the county last year. If Sunset artistic director Mark Salentine is able to pull together the same kind of talent with Farndale, it could be a sparklingly funny production.
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