Arts theater review

If you don’t like it, it’s your fault

The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater presents Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges

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Sarah Elizabeth Bedard as Celia Teasdale and Jade Ziane as Lionel Hepplewick in Intimate Exchanges.
A.R. Sinclair Photography

Intimate Exchanges
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio
Central Square Theater
Running Feb. 1 - 11, 2017 

Nine different characters. Sixteen different possible life trajectories. Over 10 hours of theatrical content. All of this managed by a cast of two: Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Jade Ziane, who play all female and male roles, respectively. 

Intimate Exchanges by Alan Ayckbourn is hardly your average play; it is composed of eight plays that each have two different endings. This structure leads to an immersive environment for the audience: they get to decide the ultimate fate of the characters.

Intimate Exchanges takes place in a suburb of London. In the beginning of the play, the audience is introduced to Celia Teasdale, the frustrated wife of an alcoholic headmaster, and Sylvie Bell, the simple girl who works for her. The opening scene presents the first decision of the play: Celia can either have a cigarette or continue on with her spring cleaning. Depending on the version of Intimate Exchanges you see, Celia’s decision will lead to different consequences, causing a ripple effect and resulting in a dramatically different play.

In the version that I saw, Celia, after an internal struggle broadcast to the audience as she hovers over the cigarettes and looks around, finally chooses the cigarette. She begins smoking in her garden until the young, strong Lionel Hepplewick enters. Lionel is the school’s groundsman, and he wishes to work on Celia’s garden. The scene is laden with sexual innuendos, and Lionel and Celia begin a bit of a romance.

Celia is not the only character to face decisions. In fact, Lionel is the next character who has to make a difficult choice when he must decide to reject or to go out with Sylvie, the Teasdales’ help. In the play that I watched, Lionel and Sylvie go out, which initiates Sylvie’s character transformation after Lionel calls her “complacent.” Sylvie asks the Teasdales to educate her. Mr. Teasdale gives her books and tutoring, while Mrs. Teasdale teaches her how to look and dress like a lady. Ultimately, this causes her to develop a will and certain passions of her own.

Personally, I think that the most unique and engaging part of Intimate Exchanges was the unfettered audience interaction. In a democratic process, we voted on the general categories for the ending. I played a role in determining Sylvie’s final fate; therefore, I felt like I paid extra attention during the final scenes to see how my decision was affecting her.

Audience intervention has a certain power because the audience can navigate decisions free of social consequences. Even though some might think that this would enable us to make negative or random choices without fear of consequence, it actually turns out that most of us aspire to be heroes, removing fear or selfishness from the decision-making process in order to achieve the best possible ending.

Intimate Exchanges also explored the nature of decision making; the characters in the play, which are very much similar to your average person, never really face a clear right or wrong. Instead, they weigh their choices subjectively, so their decisions are more nuanced and harder to make.

The production and design teams for Intimate Exchanges did a fantastic job of amplifying the intimate environment of the play. Even though there were at most only two actors on the stage, the set and environment always felt complete and engaging. The invested and involved audience sits close by as the characters go through relatable struggles; therefore, the play truly feels like a confidential exchange.

I really enjoyed the feminist undertones and overall theme of Intimate Exchanges, which was a resistance to being defined by a presumption or first impression. Sylvie’s progression throughout the play presented an interesting depiction of how humans can deal with circumstances out of their control and mold their own fate through their decisions.

In Director Olivia D’Ambrosio’s words, the play causes you to pose questions about “personal agency, regret, hope, and fate; about the circumstances we are born into and how they shape us; about the impact made on one person by the intrusion and inclusion of other people, and about the notion of parallel lives.” Her portrayal of Intimate Exchanges was an “extremely advanced level of pretend” that was captivating and thoughtful.