Unofficially, and without ever planning it, the city of Seattle has become the site of an Alan Ayckbourn performance festival. Three theatres have independently slated Ayckbourn productions running into the fall, including Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Invisible Friends, and Intiman Theatre Company’s How the Other Half Loves. The major theatres have gotten into a slapjack game over the prolific Britisher’s plays, waiting for rights to come available and grabbing them when they can. One of the consistent winners is A Contemporary Theatre, which scores a minor coup with its upcoming American premiere of Ayckbourn’s two-part The Revenger’s Comedies.
That an English-to-the-core playwright who works exclusively out of his home theatre in Scarborough has become a box-office draw in Seattle may seem striking — but the fact is that Ayckbourn’s plays have regularly taken root in the most unlikely soil. As the playwright himself puts it, “The British critics are really perplexed at the way the work seems to have traveled, and I just say, |Well, I write about human relationships, really, and most of these countries have human beings in them.’ It’s different customs that disguise behavior.”
ACT artistic director Jeff Steitzer, who is staging The Revenger’s Comedies July 18-Aug. 30, finds Ayckbourn’s stateside status “very odd,” a case of mistaken identification as the English Neil Simon. “Ayckbourn lures the audience in order to push some uncomfortable truths,” he suggests. “His plays are very, very funny, but his characters are all painfully recognizable.” And they fit the ACT ensemble very well, he adds, particularly actors known for what he calls “the Seattle style.” “I think we’re talking about a certain comic sensibility,” says Steitzer. “In other plays it can be a stumbling block for Seattle actors. You just don’t see the kinds of things, for instance, that the Steppenwolf company does in Chicago that visceral, dynamic, proletarian style. Seattle is headier, and people look at things with a comic eye, even if there’s a dark strain running through it.”
That’s as apt a description of The Revenger’s Comedies as it is of the company’s approach to playing it. The practical side of the production will be at least as challenging as finding the right seriocomic tone the play is shown in two parts, which means getting the audience in for both a matinee and evening performance, or on successive dates. The tech crew has assistance from Ayckbourn himself, who has supplied the theatre with his own recording of the play’s 100-plus sound cues. “He puts a high premium on engaging the audience’s active, imaginative participation,” Steitzer says.
ACT’s history with Ayckbourn extends back to the 1970s, when the writer found his plays being described as “frothy little dramas and dazzling champagne cocktails of enjoyment.” He has since started “pouring heavier spirits in the glasses,” and ACT audiences have been happily lapping up the resultant brew such recent productions as Woman in Mind (1989) and A Chorus of Disapproval (1988). Steitzer intends to be ready when the next opportunity for Ayckbourn comes along — and the wait isn’t likely to be long. Ayckbourn’s schedule has produced plays on a yearly basis, along with works for young audiences (“plays between plays” he calls them). Whatever Ayckbourn writes, it’s virtually guaranteed performance in Seattle. Now if only he could find the time to visit.