'Norman's Conquests' aim to capture Dorset


DORSET, VT. >> What has one cast, three directors, three stages and a generous supply of rollicking humor?

If you guessed British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy, "The Norman Conquests," now landing for its second installment at the Dorset Theatre Festival, you win the prize. But you won't be alone, because the production offers a chance to experience a unique and unusual theatrical experience for all who attend at least one, if not all three, of its component parts. You could call it a win-win-win.

The Norman Conquests recount the adventures of three couples who spend a weekend at a country house in England. It's the 1970s, and the times are a-changin', and the six members of the cast are sorting through some of the more far-reaching questions of the human condition, such as fidelity, betrayal and proper comportment at the breakfast table.

In a rare collaboration between three major Vermont professional theaters, "The Norman Conquests" brings together not only actors and directors, but the artistic directors, marketing and design staffs of the Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset and the Weston Playhouse in Weston. Each theater is producing one play of the trilogy, which began with part one, "Living Together," at Northern Stage. The second part, "Table Manners," will open in Dorset on Friday, June 17. The concluding segment of the trilogy, "Round and Round the Garden," will be staged at the Weston Playhouse from July 21-30.

Taken together, the three plays, each of which stands alone and can be enjoyed individually or collectively, form a brilliant puzzle of overlapping and intersecting drama, said Dina Janis, the artistic director of the Dorset Theatre Festival.

All the action in the three plays is happening simultaneously, she said.

"In our version ('Table Manners'), you're seeing the dining room version of what's happening, while at Northern Stage, they saw what was going on simultaneously in the living room between the three couples," she said. "For the actors, it's a tour-de-force task. It ups the fun of it — a real celebration of theater at its best."

The challenges involved in pulling something as complex as this off were several, she added.

Each theater has its own systems and ways of doing things, whether its marketing to its core audience or designing sets, lighting and costuming. Each theater had to be involved in working through a cluster of issues to achieve the seamless synergies required by the nature of the production, beginning with the casting, she said.

The same set of actors are performing the entire trilogy, but each play is under the direction of a different director. For Dorset's production of "Table Manners," that task falls to Evan Yionoulis, who recently directed a revival of "Hapgood" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

"I thought it was a great idea to share resources and engage three communities and I was intrigued to see what it would be like during the collaborative decision-making, but the main attraction was the plays themselves," she said. "Each of us (directors) brought different insights and melded that into a whole."

The other directors involved in the trilogy are Peter Hackett, who oversaw "Living Together" at the Northern Stage in White River Junction, while Michael Berresse will direct Weston's "Round and Round the Garden."

Finding consensus on the cast, which they would all share and would provide the continuity, was a major hurdle, but one that proved easier than she initially thought, she said.

"At first glance, it seemed daunting to cast a show and make choices — usually you're working as a single director and it's your vision and to come up with some sort of collective vision with other directors was worrying to all of us," she said. "But once we got into the room and starting auditioning the actors, we found we were attracted to the same people."

One of them was Richard Gallagher, who plays the leading role of Norman, a philandering husband and librarian who is a something of a free spirit, a force of nature, and yet someone eager to make others happy, Gallagher said.

"He has this wonderful way of shaking people out of their inertia to go after what they want," he said. "It's rare you get to play a character like that."

He had never auditioned before so many people — three artistic directors plus three play directors — but is glad it worked out because it's an experience of a lifetime to have a role like Norman and do it across three different stages, he said. Each play brings out different aspects in each of the six characters, he added.

"Evan is very interested in the relationships these characters have and how each one connects and then doesn't quite connect," he said, "and how the comedy comes out of that deep desire to get there and you just miss each other."

Dina Janis of Dorset and Steve Stettler, the artistic director at Weston, had long discussed working on ways to collaborate, going back to 2012 when they helped launch an effort known as "Hills Alive" in the Manchester-Dorset-Weston region, a partnership of arts institutions that aimed to promote their productions, art shows and concerts to a cross-section of audiences. Out of those discussions led Janis to the idea of collaborating on The Norman conquests. With the Northern stage having recently completed a wide-ranging renovation, the stage — literally and figuratively — was set for the effort, she said.

Coordinating with each other and busting up the silos that each theater inevitably acquires meant some things took longer, but in the end, "the benefit has been that we've all learned from each other," she said.

Each play stands alone on its own and audiences don't need to have seen the first or see the last one — or in any order — to enjoy them, she added.

In addition to Richard Gallagher as "Norman," Caitlin Clouthier plays "Sarah," Ashton Heyl plays Ruth, Mark Light-Orr is Reg, Jenni Putney is Annie and David Mason is Tom. "Table Manners" will run from June 17-July 2 at the Dorset Playhouse. For more information, or to order tickets, call 802-867-2223 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org.


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