AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by John Rando
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Laughter abounds as the very human characters in Alan Ayckbourn's "Round and Round the Garden" try to get what they want. American Conservatory Theater brings them to life thanks to a terrific ensemble cast and the skilled direction of John Rando.

This play is part of a trilogy, "The Norman Conquests," that takes place at an English home during one summer weekend. While "Round and Round the Garden" obviously takes place in the garden, or back yard, the other two -- "Table Manners" and "Living Together" -- take place in the dining room and sitting room, respectively, during the same time frame. Each play can stand on its own, but seeing all three expands and enriches the experience. Berkeley Repertory Theatre treated its audiences to the trilogy in the summer of 1981.

The garden play tends to establish the basic situation, then wrap it up when the weekend is over. The premise is that Norman (Manoel Felciano) has invited his unmarried sister-in-law, Annie (Delia MacDougall), to spend a weekend with him at the seashore. Annie lives in the family home and cares for her aging mother, who remains unseen. To facilitate her tryst with Norman, she has asked her brother, Reg (Anthony Fusco), and his wife, Sarah (Marcia Pizzo), to stay with their mother while she takes a short holiday -- supposedly alone. She doesn't want to tell anyone about her plans because Norman is married to her sister, Ruth (René Augesen). In the meantime, her neighbor, Tom (Dan Hiatt), a veterinarian, carries a torch for her, but he's too shy to let her know. Complications arise as all the relatives and spouses show up, and Norman and Annie scrap their plans. In the meantime, the libidinous Norman tries to seduce not only Annie but also Sarah and even his own wife.

One of the real pleasures of this production is seeing how well the cast blends. All six are veterans of the Bay Area theater scene. In addition, Felciano, Fusco and Augesen are part of ACT's core acting company. Therefore, they've all worked together before, making for good chemistry. Director Rando takes advantage of their experience to elicit richly nuanced performances.

The Act II scene between Hiatt's Tom and Augesen's Ruth is hilarious as these two gifted comic actors play out a scene of misunderstood meanings and balky folding lawn chairs. Felciano's Norman is a scamp, but he's mostly like a naughty but lovable puppy. He just wants to be loved, it seems. MacDougall's Annie wants to be loved, too, but she'd rather be loved by the clueless Tom. Fusco's Reg is a jolly good fellow who seems to have a less than ideal marriage to Pizzo's uptight, domineering Sarah.

Ralph Funicello's overgrown garden set reflects the messiness of the characters' situations, while lighting by Alexander V. Nichols gives clues about the passing time and what's happening inside. Lydia Tanji's '70s costumes reflect the characters' personalities without some of the extreme fashions of the era. The sound design by Jake Rodriguez is notable for the meows of Annie's cat, which has taken refuge in a tree.

There's nothing deeply philosophical or political about "Round and Round the Garden," yet it provides some interesting insights into how people behave. It's also very funny.

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