Arts & Events

Theatre Review: Giddy Trilogy in Summer Rep at Shotgun: Table Manners, (Part One of The Norman Conquests)

by John A. McMullen II
Friday August 06, 2010 - 04:28:00 PM
Richard Reinholdt as Norman, surrounded by the
            ladies who portray his Conquests: Sarah Mitchell,
            Zehra Berkman, and Kendra Lee Oberhauser
Pak Han
Richard Reinholdt as Norman, surrounded by the ladies who portray his Conquests: Sarah Mitchell, Zehra Berkman, and Kendra Lee Oberhauser

Alan Ayckbourn wrote 1970’s British domestic comedy in the midst of the Sexual (pronounce it seks-yoo-all) Revolution, the UK having gone in a decade from “No Sex Please, We’re British,” to a middle-class revisiting of Restoration bawdiness—just like in America. His plays must have been outrageous when first produced. That this form should have recaptured the Tony for best revival of a play last year is odd to me but attests to its durability 

TABLE MANNERS is the first episode of his notable trilogy NORMAN CONQUESTS now playing in rep at SHOTGUN PLAYERS. It is a family weekend (pronounce it week-END) with three siblings, two spouses, and a diffident boyfriend dining on scant victuals and attacking one another’s habits and character.  

Where does the Norman in THE NORMAN CONQUESTS come in? Richard Reinholdt as Norman is an impish rapscallion in leopard print pyjamas who is the kept husband of one sister and seducer past and future of the other women.  

Norman is a Don Juan ala Alan Alda, a touchy-feely expressive fellow, concerned about “your emotional state” in a world of stiff-upper lips, a role he plays to get laid—which was one of the greatest hits and stratagems of the 70’s, as all you then-bearded lotharios and willing damsels will recall.  

It is funny in situation with an occasional funny line, but the comedy comes from character and from recognizable situations—like the hysterical dust-up over a bossy sister-in-law telling everyone where to sit at the dinner table, which could be droll in lesser hands, but these accomplished actors’ execution of it brought belly-laughs. The players are first class, and have believable Received dialects which they inhabit rather than allowing the pronunciation to become the character. At the end of the first act, I thought better comedians were needed, but by the end of the play, the cast had found their rhythms and personae and disabused me of this criticism.  

They work as an ensemble as is the custom of Shotgun productions. They attend to one another, clean up one another’s spills, address one another in profile, and act upon one another without that self-consciousness that interferes with good acting. Notable are Zehra Berkman as Annie, the put-on spinster sister who stays behind to take care of her ailing mum; her pretty yet funny face and expressions reveal pathos and comedy simultaneously implying nuances far beyond the dialogue. Sarah Mitchell (Ruth) effectively plays her sister and Norman’s wife as a nasal-intoning, blasé castrator with a quick tongue and Siamese cat eyes. Josiah Polhemus (Tom) plays the local vet and Annie’s ineffectual and reluctant beau, convincing us of his clueless boyishness in a creative and quirky solo scene of dumb-show in which he toys with the breakfast leftovers. Mick Mize as brother Reg is the good bloke if put-upon husband and is well-cast since he has the same curly hair and rounded features as Annie. Kendra Lee Oberhauser as high-strung and officious sister-in-law Sarah includes every high-pitched Type A personality characteristic of your real life counterpart but with the snottiness that the British have a corner on, which makes her turn-about so delicious. Mr. Reinholdt rises to the acting challenge of carrying an extended monologue of well over five minutes when the others refuse to speak to him at breakfast.  

The set by Nina Ball is appropriately middle-class shabby as a family home assumedly decorated by mum decades before, replete with mahogany wainscoting, yellow wallpaper, 20 framed prints featuring a Georgian horseshow, a china closet full of willow pattern. Stage center is a window overlooking and unseen garden (the next installment is “Round and Round the Garden”) from which see which a gray English sky. The window and window seat are surrounded by well-worn sheer draperies. The centerpiece is the dining table around which the consternation occurs. Details like unmatched wine glasses resonate realistically. 

The costumes by Valera Coble are very 70’s with double breasted jackets and wide ties with tie tacks, plaid pants, baggy sweaters, old military uniforms, corals and blue prints and chiffons for the ladies; the hairdos alone will transport you in time. 

The expository first scene is bit static in its staging, thus slow to jumpstart the comedy. Once out of the starting block, the play is astonishingly well directed by Joy Carlin. A lifelong actress, Ms. Carlin is able to get exceptional acting from these exceptional actors. Every beat and intention is clear, there is moment-to-moment real interaction, the tempos of the scenes are distinct and apt. The director has led the actors to grand discoveries in the difficult terrain of putting an super-realistic spin on the foibles of domesticity and thereby making it funnier than the usual enacting. Details such as having the table set in fits and starts throughout the first act rather than as one action are inspired. My compliments to her funny twist on the scene change: my hackles arose when a young blonde woman in black tech-wear and head-set entered in low light to change the set; however, her antics in changing the set brought laughter and applause.  

All three chapters of this trilogy are being played in repertory through September 5 with the same cast. It’s a worthwhile venture that leaves you a little giddy and wanting to know what happens next. 


Presented by Shotgun Players, Patrick Dooley, artistic director 

At Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way) across from Ashby BART station.  


TABLE MANNERS plays Aug 21 @ 4pm, Aug 25 @ 8pm, Aug 28 @ 4pm, Aug 29 @ 1pm, 

Sep 1 @ 8pm, Sep 4 @ 4pm, and Sep 5 @ 1pm. Entire trilogy in repertory through September 5. 

Tickets/info or 510-841-6500 ext. 303. 

n by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Joy Carlin, set by Nina Ball, costumes by Valera Coble, sound by Madeline Oldham, and lighting by Masha Tsimring.  

With: Zehra Berkman (Annie), Sarah Mitchell (Ruth), Mick Mize (Reg), 

Kendra Lee Oberhauser (Sarah), Josiah Polhemus (Tom), and Richard Reinholdt (Norman).