DORSET >> Big ideas can come from small places. In this case, one such notion came from three regional theatres in the state of Vermont.
As part of its historic partnership with Weston Playhouse and Northern Stage (White River Junction), Dorset Theatre Festival will present "Table Manners," the second play in Alan Ayckbourn's award-winning 1973 comic trilogy, "The Norman Conquests," from June 16 to July 2.
Both funny and poignant, the plays examine intricate relationships among six characters. All three shows are set during the sexual revolution of the 1970s and take place over the same weekend at an English country estate. Each play occurs in a different part of the house, with DTF's taking its turn in the dining room.
DTF managing director Molly Henninghausen said that "Table Manners," as well as the other two plays, "Living Together" and "Round and Round the Garden," are self-contained, meaning they stand alone without viewing the entire trilogy.
Also, the plays can be viewed in any order. There are overlapping scenes, and on occasion a given character's exit from one play corresponds with entry into one of the other two.
"Although each play stands on its own, audiences who see all three productions have the luxury of getting to know the characters on a much deeper level," Henninghausen said. "It was no small feat to coordinate schedules, subscriptions, and ticketing so that audiences have the opportunity to enjoy all three plays. This has also solidified a bond with our two collaborators, Weston Playhouse and Northern Stage."
DTF's executive and artistic director Dina Janis said that all three companies will share a cast and creative team, and that "Table Manners" will be directed by Evan Yionoulis, known to regional audiences for her recent revival of "Hapgood," at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
"Evan brought with her some terrific actors, as she has taught at Yale for many years and really has a superb roster coming through that top program," Janis said.
The innovative collaboration began in 2015 at Janis' suggestion and concurrence from artistic directors Carol Dunne at Northern Stage and Steve Stettler at Weston. Certain elements had to remain uniform across the three companies.
To that end, from April 20 to May 8, Northern Stage hosted the first installment, "Living Together," under the direction of Peter Hackett at the company's new Barrette Center for the Arts.
Hackett said the most interesting changes in approach from staging a single production actually came in the preparations. All three directors were present for the auditions and had to agree on a cast.
"Even though our plays take place in different rooms in the house, directors had to agree to an overall architectural scheme for the house as well as a ground plan," Hackett said. "Costumes were probably the most complicated as we had to agree on the costumes that appeared in multiple plays."
Directors rarely are required to collaborate in this way, Hackett continued, but he found the process "invigorating and remarkably smooth going."
The trilogy features six characters. Acting the parts will be Richard Gallagher as Norman, Caitlin Clouthier as Sarah, Ashton Heyl as Ruth, Mark Light-Orr as Reg, Jenni Putney as Annie, and David Mason as Tom.
Mason called the trilogy's Vermont run a "fun theatrical experiment."
"Doing Ayckbourn for several months in summertime Vermont is a treat," Mason said. "To do it with one cast at three different theatres with three different directors is different and exciting, and we're having a blast. I'm looking forward to Dorset and Weston."
Carol Dunne, who hosted "Living Together" at Northern Stage, concluded by saying the trilogy is creating momentum and synergy starting from the first audiences, which should have a strong carryover effect at the other two venues.
"Our audiences fell in love with the actors, and are excited to travel next to Dorset Theatre Festival to see what these lovelorn characters get up to in 'Table Manners,'" Dunne said. "The show was a wonderful success, and I have been stopped by countless patrons who particularly responded to the truth of the characters. They felt they got to know them, and now want to know them better in the remaining plays in the trilogy."
After Dorset's production, Weston Playhouse will conclude the series from July 21 to 30 under the direction of Michael Berresse.
"Table Manners" will run from June 16 to July 2 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset. For tickets and info call 802-867-2223 or visit: dorsettheatrefestival.org.
— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist.