UNCW’s Theatre Department continues its season with Alan Ayckbourn’s “Private Fears in Public Places.” Ayckbourn is probably most well-known for “Absurd Person Singluar” and the “Norman Conquests.” A prolific playwright and working director, he holds a special place in the hearts of those who follow theatre and love the craft of the play script. Though he doesn’t have the household cache that Sartre or Beckett have, he is incredibly important to the modern cannon. UNCW’s decision to produce one of his plays seems completely in line with their mission to educate and had me excited for weeks to get to see the show.
“Private Fears in Public Places” opens with a young woman shopping for a flat to move into with her fiancé, who has not arrived to see their potential new home. Nicloa (Lily Nicole) and Dan (Wilson Meridith) are having relationship trouble. Their poor estate agent, Stewart (Nick Reed), knows he isn’t going to make a sale to them, but he keeps going through the motions. That scene almost encapsulates the whole show: Failing to connect to the people you are responsible to, and going through the motions of life even when you know it is futile.
Back at the office Stewart is loaned a home-made video recording of a religious musical program by his co-worker, Charlotte (Kristina Auten). The show had been taped over a pre-existing program that surprises Stewart and changes the way he sees Charlotte. Meanwhile Dan is drinking himself into a stupor and quickly becoming the major financial support of his favorite bartender, Ambrose (Josh Browner). He spends considerably more time with Ambrose than he does with his fiancée, ultimately bringing him to online dating and Stewart’s sister, Imogene (Dottie Davis).
Set in the recent past in London, the UNCW faculty focuses on performers’ development British accents. Several did well and managed to carry them through the whole show. This is part of the mission of educational theatre: to nurture tools and apply them, seeing what works and how to strengthen each tool in an actor’s arsenal. UNCW’s new addition to the theatre faculty, Christopher Marino, worked closely with the students to help them develop accents that were not all of one cut.
Stewart and his sister Imogene come from an upper middle-class home, with educational advantages that have allowed them to become professionals; they sound like Londoners for that world. Ambrose the bartender is just this side of Cockney, boasting an East London working-class accent that drops “h’s” and changes “th” sounds to “f’s.” Nicloa manages something in between, giving us a young woman who has worked her way up to the advantages she has found and understands the image she must project.
This production is about moving scenery. The incredibly complicated set, designed by Robert Alpers, is pretty dynamic and adds depth and texture. It is composed of several layers of screens that fly in and out to form different shapes and create different venues. The scenery adjustment happens after every scene—all 54 of them. By intermission, motion sickness set in for me.
I love that UNCW has great production values and that they provide their students with opportunities to learn and develop their stagecraft. However, the scenery should enhance the performance, and give the actors something to play off of to enrich the audience’s experience. Thus scene changes should not be the dominant motif for the show. A simple stage, with six or seven pools of light, and plain furniture to suggest an office, home, bar, etc., would have done far more for the audience and the performers than this elaborate game of Tetris.
“Private Fears” is supposed to be a show about people struggling for connection in an increasingly disconnected world. It feels like a missed opportunity to work with students on the struggles of performing a scene with two characters who both share and fear their prime objectives. Not all characters fail to connect in the script; there are countless small moments of relation, both superficial and deep, that each character feels, desires and sabotages. Yet, the staging here loses connectivity. The first genuine human kinship comes in Stewart and Charlotte’s second scene, when he returns her homemade pornography. They’re both so nervous and antsy, the audience naturally leans in, titillated by the dramatic irony of knowing Stewart’s insight and if Charlotte did hand over the Christian video-turned-porn with intention. Reed and Auten dance around each other verbally and physically, drawing in and carefully not touching the main question in the audience’s minds. Reed actually blushes at one point. Browner’s scenes in talking about his deceased lover bring about the only believability from the performers onstage.
Though I appreciate director Paul Castagno’s approach to bringing a different and larger vision to the Ayckbourn show, this scripts needs to be staged with more intimacy. More so, the performances need to be the focus.
I wish I would have left impressed by a group of young people tackling a difficult piece of work. Instead, I left wanting Dramamine and a cool cloth to the head; the scene changes really take away from the performers.
Private Fears in Public Places
Nov. 21st – 24th 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
Tickets: $5- $12