Friday, August 24, 2012

Old Times and No Man's Land - A Theater Review and a Festival Wrap Up

Harold Pinter
The Pinter Festival at ACT has been everything a theater festival should be:
  • It was grand in scale : producing three full main stage productions almost simultaneously; hosting numerous auxiliary events including readings, classes and film screenings. 
  • It was focused : if you didn't know what Pinter was about at the start of the festival, you certainly did by the end. 
  • It was courageous : produced with all local talent; taking on a serious often misunderstood playwright and producing his plays for an indoor festival in Seattle's warmest time of the year.
  • It was uneven : the  productions were extremely varied in their effectiveness. 
  • It was addictive : even after the most disatisfying of the shows, you wanted to come back and see the rest; you even hoped that this will be only the first of possibly a few Pinter Festival's that may come over the next handful of years.
Overall, the festival felt like a gift to the city, and I was thrilled to be able to witness it unfold.

I saw The Dumb Waiter and Celebration at the beginning of the festival and wrote about them here. This past week I was able to catch performances of No Man's Land  and Old Times.

Jeffery Frace, Cheyenne Casebier and Anne Allgood in Old Times
Old Times might be my new favorite Pinter play. A married couple, Deeley and Kate, entertain an old friend of Kate's, Anna, in their country house. Soon, however, Deeley and Anna's efforts to each claim Kate as their own escalate the evening's visit into a desperate and brutal journey into all the characters' pasts that leaves no one unscathed. I had read it before but never had seen it performed. I always loved the wonderfully obscure tension that bounced back and forth between the characters like a diabolical three way tennis match. But never had I imagined the breadth of humor that could be mined from the power plays amongst the characters. Under Victor Pappas' ultra-focused and confident direction the three extremely talented performers  (Jeffery Frace (Deeley), Cheyenne Casebier (Kate) and Anne Allgood (Anna)) deliver a surprisingly laugh out loud funny take on the script that manages to hit so much unexpected comedy in the play while still slowly building the extreme discomfort that rests at the core of the piece.

Frace brings just the right combination of casual aloofness and barbed sarcasm to Deeley that allows him to embody both the simplistic empathy and haunting unreliability that makes him the perfect host to this most unusual of evenings. Casebier as Kate is almost Zen-like in her stillness and silence during Anna and Deeley's power struggle which keeps her an important and well heard character even in long stretches where she has no lines (many an actor fail miserably in such a role where they seemingly have nothing active to do). Allgood is both poised charm and striking venom as the evening's questionably intentioned guest from the past. There was a brief glimpse of Allgood's range and affinity for Pinter in Celebration, but here we really get to see an assured, multilayered and memorable performance. 

With these strong performances at its center, what works so well in this production is it ability to take Pinter off the page and deliver it in a lively, unexpected and unsettling way to its audience. Director Pappas, with his actors and design team (Robert Dahlstrom's set is flawless in its simplicity, utilitarianism and elegance, and Rick Paulsen's lighting assists in producing some unforgettable images on the stage), make many subtle but bold choices with the script that give it a broad, tangible and recognizable life that many Pinter productions are too reverential or too intimidated to ever reach. If the Pinter Festival was a great success, Old Times was its crowning achievement (The Dumb Waiter was excellent as well, but I believe Old Times to be a richer and more nuanced play to begin with).

Moore, Crook, Corrado and Harris in No Man's Land
While Old Times surprised in its life off the page, No Man's Land never seemed to get far from a table reading. In this play we have two men, Hirst and Spooner, visiting at the home of the wealthier of the two, Hirst, after having met earlier in the evening at a local pub.Supposed strangers, these men soon find some odd common ground. Their relationship is further strained by two young men, Briggs and Foster, who are sort of assistants to Hirst, whose motives to protect their benefactor and themselves begin to quickly turn all of our assumptions about who these people are and what we are watching upside down.

Frank Corrado as Hirst and Randy Moore as Spooner seem, along with director  Penelope Cherns, to be trying to be following Pinter's script as a piece of music, as if the language is so strong that all you need to do is hop on, deliver it well and let you take it for a ride. The result is a pretty uneven production that produces a handful of interesting moments but doesn't really hold together. By the time Benjamin Harris as Foster and Peter Crook as Briggs arrive, each bringing a bit more of a pointed and welcomed energy to the production, the tone has been set and the proceeding action feels disconnected from what has come before. The problem is most pronounced during the play's handful of extremely long monologues almost all of which are delivered almost as if there is no one else on stage and subsequently, the rest of the life on stage dies. Cherns says in her program notes that "Pinter demands a light touch." It feels here that she touched way too lightly and didn't make the bolder choices that would have given the audience the more visceral experience that this play is designed to deliver.

A testament to the power of this festival is that despite my feelings about No Man's Land I felt even more compelled to see Old Times afterwards. Having seen them both now, along with the initial two one acts of the festival, I wish I had been able to make it to some of the auxiliary events around these shows. I do hope ACT is happy with the results of this experiment and feel  moved to bring us another wave of Pinter works in the future.

The Pinter Festival  plays at ACT through August 26. Tickets here.


Accents : In a festival like this, where a number of Pinter plays are being tackled by the same ensemble at once, I would have loved to see one show done without British accents. Clearly many of Pinter's plays are set in specific locales in England and use language that is distinct to British culture. Yet a number of his plays are unrealistic and non-naturalistic enough that I believe they could weather a true relocation across the pond and have our American actors speak the words with their own domestic accents. We do Shakespeare without accents all the time. Beckett, it could be argued, actually brings a different nuance when done with an Irish accent, but he still holds up marvelously when done with unadorned American accents. In these plays, Celebration, seems to be the play where accents mattered the least. In No Man's Land, I would argue that the accents almost got in the way. It felt like Corrado and Moore sort of fell in love with their accents and played the delivery of their lines more than the action of the play.

Design : While I found the costumes, lights and sets for The Dumb Waiter and Old Times  to be wonderfully effective and visually striking, I felt that the design elements in both Celebration and No Man's Land to be severely judgmental of  the plays' characters. The color choices in both were unappetizing palates with what seemed to be purposefully ill-fitting costumes that pulled the audience even further away from any kind of empathy with the characters. Just as the set of Celebration  didn't read as a fancy restaurant, the set of No Man's Land simply didn't read as the rich house it was supposed to be. Instead of a wall of books and a separate bar, both were crammed into a single unit. The exit door which is supposed to lead to the rest of the house, read more like it lead to a small bathroom or the narrow hallway of a nursing home (I actually thought that Hirsh, when he crawls out of the room having fallen down drunk, was exiting into a bathroom to vomit, not to make his way slowly toward his bedroom elsewhere in the house). Maybe in an attempt to keep the four plays looking dramatically different visually, the design team went a bit too far with No Man's Land in finding a disjointed and claustrophobic counter balance to the cleanly orchestrated and Old Times.

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