Review: Stroll through garden of English delights in 'Intimate Exchanges'

James Recca and Annette Trossbach in the Theatre Conspiracy production of 'Intimate Exchanges.'

Photo courtesy Annette Trossbach

James Recca and Annette Trossbach in the Theatre Conspiracy production of "Intimate Exchanges."

What: One variation of the Alan Ayckbourn play about how tiny decisions change our lives

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26; one 2 p.m. matinee on Jan. 27

Where: Foulds Theater at the Lee County Alliance of the Arts complex, 10091 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers

Cost: $20; $10 for students

Information: 239-936-3239 or theatreconspiracy.org

On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.

— "Intimate Exchanges" begins in a garden and ends on a park bench. At least, one version does. There are 15 more. Theatre Conspiracy sticks with one - a very funny one that involves whisky bottles, Boudicea, a fistfight, randy housewives, a fur bikini top and an over-sexed housemaid. Trust me here.

The script for the show runs 433 pages. In two volumes. In 8 point type. In all, "Intimate Exchanges" encompasses 16 different plays, all branching from a choice made within the first five seconds - whether the character of Celia Teasdale smokes a cigarette or not. If you're not sure of the concept, think of that Gwyneth Paltrow movie, "Sliding Doors."

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn wrote the show as experiment in how tiny choices could have huge consequences. Just two actors (one man, one woman) portray all the characters in each of the sixteen different versions. Farther downtown, Florida Rep has produced two Ayckbourn comedies - "Bedroom Farce" and "Relatively Speaking" - in recent years.

The eight major variations are usually named for their third scene, the longest ones in each version of the play. Each of these opens the second half. Director Stephen Hooper opts for the fourth variation, titled "A Pageant." This option also has the benefit of just four characters; other can include up to six major characters and four minor ones.

In "Intimate Exchanges: A Pageant," we find schoolmaster Toby Teasdale and wife Celia struggling through the last throes of their unhappy marriage. He drinks. She ogles the gardener. Housemaid Sylvie resolves to improve herself, while groundskeeper Lionel fancies Missus Teasdale, but is satisfying himself with Sylvie. Ahh, the British.

Director Stephen Hooper told me before the show "If it looks like they're having fun on stage, I've done my job." He gets an A Level for Effort and another for Execution. Well done sir.

Annette Trossbach and James Recca bring this garden of Anglophile delights to life with wit, charm and more than a little bit of sass. Each gets a posh nob and a commoner to play - and the pair obviously had a blast exploring the characters.

Trossbach delights as simple-minded, besotted (and completely stupid) housemaid Sylvie Bell. Anyone who's watched recent Britcoms will recognized the Chav accent, the saucy "Oi" exclamations and the hyper-aggressive sexuality.

What I love most though is what I dub the "Sylvie stroll," a hunched-over, hands at the corners of the dress, flash a bit of knee (or more), bashful but brazen walk that mirrors both sad puppy dog and naughty child. Sylvie keeps both Lionel and Mr. Teasdale running to her whims - and Trossbach clearly adores the flirty, silly, air for brains character.

The Celia Teasdale character features less prominently in this section, but there's a posh, breathy voice, a manner of speaking that looks down the nose and a coffee at the patio table seduction scene that leaves poor witless gardener Lionel lost among the tall grass.

Recca, newly slimmed down from his appearance in "See How They Run," brings a brilliantly befuddled simplicity to daft groundskeeper Lionel Heppelwick. In a simple pair of coveralls and a white tee, he gallumphs about the stage tossing out old garden equipment, toting bricks or struggling to calculate acreage with a notepad and a pencil nub.

One of Recca's great feats is the transformation from loosey-goosey Lionel to excessively proper headmaster Toby Teasdale. I love that his wonderful rubberface goes from oversexed gardener to proper teacher.

The show's greatest scene, the one this variation of "Intimate Exchanges" takes its title from, "The Pageant," opens the second half. First, Trossbach swans on stage as Missus Teasdale. She wrangles with Mr. Teasdale over the school production of "Boudicea" (she pronounces it Boo-di-see-ah). No use, Sylvie has the role - and one of Diana Waldier's leather and carved-up fur bikini costumes as British warrior queen Boudicea. My God, what an entrance!

An exasperated Recca tries (and fails repeatedly) to get Sylvie to "JUST SAY THE LINE!" Trossbach flutters, mutters, stammers and flirts. Nothing in the ancient English makes sense to Sylvie. Confronted with King Prasutagus, she blurts "Oh bloody hell, why isn't he called George?"

Laughter rolls out of the audience time and again as "Come ye, Britons" fails, again and again, to excite the roaring mobs and poor Mr. Teasdale gets more and more frustrated. Recca's long face become longer until he's reduced nearly to tears, slumped in a metal folding chair, Trossbach in the silly Boudicea costume patting his hand.

Then, Missus Teasdale shows up. In a wonderfully loud offstage fight, there's a right punch-up between Sylvie and Celia - and the winner rides away triumphant in a Roman chariot! After pinching Mr. Teasdale's bum, of course.

If the show has a fault, it might be that the costume changes take a bit too long, slightly interrupting the show's momentum. The pageant stage, used to great effect in the second half, featured a backdrop that jarringly resembled the French tricolor more than the Union Jack.

How do two actors become four characters and make the stage seem full of life? Find out in "Intimate Exchanges." Nothing so much fun ever came of a posh British bird deciding to smoking a ciggie!

What's your favorite Britcom? Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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