Class and the Rabble 

Masquers Playhouse stages an excellent, if little-seen, Ayckbourn madcap.

From the beginning, British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's work has been heavily laced with the absurd and madcap. Even his first works, penned under the pseudonym Ronald Allen, relied heavily on such oddities as a family living on a bus stalled in permanent London traffic who must take extreme measures to conceal an illegal pregnancy (Standing Room Only), a Santa-hating villain named the Crimson Gollywog (Xmas vs. Mastermind), and a teatime battle featuring flying cream buns (Mr. Whatnot). As what London theater critic Michael Billington calls "The West End's hit man," Ayckbourn has built his reputation on rapid-fire silliness of several flavors, as the recent Playhouse West production of How the Other Half Loves amply proved.

Which is not to say that Ayckbourn's work lacks depth. A second glance reveals that not only has he spent his long career stretching the limits of theatrical expression (his first play, The Square Cat, was staged in 1959), but he has been exploring themes such as feminism, community, married life, and the emotion-stunting British "stiff upper lip" mentality with care and compassion. Billington calls Ayckbourn "a laughing surgeon"; it's a fitting image for a man who can make grief funny without being cruel and allows his characters, no matter how outrageous, their dignity. A contemporary of John Osborne (The Entertainer), Ayckbourn covers some of the same ground, but without the same acidity; his outlook seems generally more buoyant.

1977's Ten Times Table, while not Ayckbourn's strongest work, is a fine example of his skills, and a revelation at Point Richmond's Masquers Playhouse. Ayckbourn is a favorite of small or amateur companies because his plays tend to require only one set and a small cast, but that doesn't mean they're easy to perform. Many of his special effects rely on crack timing and a well-balanced ensemble in which no one actor dominates the rest. In this country, there's the added problem of the accents, which can prove the undoing of an amateur company. Once again the Masquers -- which to its credit regularly chooses lesser-known works -- rises to the challenge, producing a solid, highly enjoyable evening of mayhem that seamlessly weaves together issues of class, a poorly conceived historical pageant, and a threadbare prop horse.

During a period in which he was trying to shed his image as a solely comic writer, Ayckbourn took a break between writing two more serious plays (Just Between Ourselves and Joking Apart) to pen Ten Times Table. Set in the small town of Pendon, Table is the story of a committee formed to stage a reenactment of the agrarian uprising that led to the Massacre of the Pendon Twelve. Committee chair and local businessman Ray Dixon thinks the massacre will make a fine centerpiece for a "folk festival" to bring visitors and business to town. Local teacher and committee member Eric Collins, a Marxist, has a very different agenda -- namely the rehabilitation of the historical rabble-rouser John Cockle. Over the course of four meetings spread over eight months, the group will split into warring factions closely mirroring their historical antecedents, while family and marital relationships are sorely taxed.

Ayckbourn's eye for the hilarious in the mundane is obvious in the way he portrays the meetings and then the day of the pageant itself. One of his great strengths is the way he slowly turns up the heat on his characters until they burst. Inspired by his own committee experiences, here he jacks up all the little common pressures of consensus decision-making. There's a funny and very familiar bit where the group, aided by PDAs and calendars, tries to schedule its next meeting. We all know what this sort of thing looks like because we've all been through it -- choosing a chairperson, recording the minutes, breaking into working groups -- but when in our lives has it devolved into open, pistol-waving anarchy?

As audiences at How the Other Half Loves may have observed, Ayckbourn's work suffers when the casting is uneven. That's not a problem here at all; the Masquers cast is composed of equally talented folk who work well together. They all have their British accents nailed on firmly, and many do wonderful, subtle facial bits that support their characters without detracting from the ensemble. My notes read "watch Sophie's mouth!" and "Helen has great eyebrows"; both Pamela Ciochetti and Ann Homrighausen respectively have exquisite facial control. Sophie is the character with the most difficult journey in this play, and the manifestation of Ayckbourn's typical concern with the plight of women who let themselves be controlled by men. Ciochetti plays her as mousy, cautious, and hopeful; her reaction to a betrayal is the play's rawest moment and she pulls it off neatly. Simon Patton as Lawrence has the knack of playing drunk without overplaying it, while C. Conrad Cady as Donald can barely contain his nervous energy, shooting his hand into the air like the kid we all hated in school every time he catches a misspelling or needs to make a groan-inducing point of order. Loralee Windsor is lovely as Donald's mother Audrey, the deaf octogenarian quixotically chosen to take the minutes. Mild and sweet, Audrey offers around hard candies, brightly plays the piano as the pageant crumbles outside, and delivers the occasional zinger.

Ray and Helen Dixon are the solid burghers, easy in their class standing and privilege. Norman Macleod's Ray is an old hand at civic boosterism, mentioning at the first meeting that he'd previously arranged "a whist drive that was highly successful." Elegant, well-groomed Helen, meanwhile, has honed condescension to an art. She's the obvious target for the populist Collins' ire, with lines such as "They're all the same, since time immemorial. Spend their lives bellyaching and complaining. It's the same with those whatever-they're-called, those Trotskys." And ire isn't all Collins (Robert Taylor) has on offer. As the play progresses he becomes megalomaniacal, identifying perhaps too strongly with John Cockle and drawing Sophie into his wake -- a situation that her brother, ex-army captain Tim (a surly, menacing Michael Clark), will try to remedy in an over-the-top fashion involving an old service pistol.

There are a few places where the production could use some work. At one point Collins delivers a tirade more or less to a framed portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth that he could stand to turn out to the audience. During the pageant itself, the crowd noise from outside the meeting room (the ballroom of the dilapidated Swan Hotel) doesn't reflect the action we're told is going on, and some of the illusion and momentum is lost as a result. But these are minor quibbles next to the general excellence of the production. Director Angela Mason and the Masquers have chosen something we don't see often and made a totally respectable go of it, while gently tweaking notions of class in the process.

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