What makes film different from theater is that film is fixed forever, performances and lines repeating endlessly year after year, while theater has the ability to surprise us. And what makes theater different from life is that theater is scripted and life is random, unexpected, not planned out ahead of time. And what makes Philadelphia’s FringeArts Festival fun is that it delights in performances that confound expectations.
INTIMATE EXCHANGES, a scripted play that nevertheless changes at each performance, imitates the twists and turns of life—although most of us don’t have an audience ready to make hard decisions for us or preplanned lines to say no matter what the occasion. We’re forced to improvise, moment by moment, mixing hard decisions with small, seemingly insignificant ones that nevertheless can influence the trajectory of our lives.
We’ve all had those moments. Should we date this one or that, should we stay married or throw off convention and follow our hearts? Whatever we decide there are consequences, both for ourselves and others.
Jennifer Childs and Anthony Lawton, both accomplished comic actors familiar to Philadelphia audiences, take on the formidable task of playing a variety of characters and learning lines for all the possible permutations of the script written by playwright Alan Aykbourn, but never quite knowing which combination of circumstances they will have to play on any given night. “The actors had to learn over 200 pages of dialog,” says Jaime Konowal, general manager of 1812 Productions, and the crew has to be prepared for whatever happens on the spot.
If I talk about the play I saw it may not bear any resemblance to the one you will see, and I don’t want to give away too much for fear of influencing your decision if you are the one called upon to make a decision for the actors—a spotlight shines on a member of the audience at critical moments to tell the actors what direction the story should take. The night I attended, one viewer got so flustered by having to make a decision that her neighbor chimed in instead.
As a side note, it would be fun to turn the spotlight on the audiences and analyze who makes which decision and what it says about their own relationships. So if you or your partner is called upon at one of these turning points, just think for a moment about what it might mean for you.
The play is unremarkable in itself—a bored housewife, an “almost” alcoholic headmaster who “unbottles” at home, an ambitious maid who is described by her lover as “an angle bracket,” and a randy gardener pair up in a variety of ways. What makes it work is the delight of watching the actors switch character—a change of wig from blonde to redhead, a slight stoop, a pair of glasses—and voilà, another character emerges. Most significantly a change of voice. Accents in Britain are very much indicators of class and education, and Childs and Lawton slip easily from upperclass Brits to working class stiffs so that when they are hidden from view—behind a wall, under a platform—they are able to take on both sides of a conversation and let us know exactly who is talking. And if you are lucky enough to witness the fight between Celia Teasdale and her maid Sylvie Bell behind a curtain, you will have been treated to a comic tour de force.
Oh, and if you’re one of those who often debates the pronunciation of Boudicca (or is it Boadicea?) you will totally get the humor. [Arden Theatre, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd St.] August 28-September 21, 2014. fringearts.com/event/intimate-exchanges-12/.
Read Deb Miller’s review here.