Playwright Harold Pinter can be puzzling. Indeed, he often seems to delight in being puzzling.
In a production that opened last weekend, the Rogue Theatre has embraced Pinter's Old Times with intelligence and spirit. It's not the kind of piece that will appeal to those who like more traditional theater. But for those who can open themselves to a different kind of theater experience—with enigmatic characters, mysterious relationships and a sometimes maddening lack of clarity—Rogue's production will challenge, entertain and, maybe, even haunt.
The English playwright, whose work came of age in the 1960s and '70s, dispensed with the grit and anger of "kitchen sink" realism which had revolutionized English theater in the '50s. Rather, he is considered a practitioner of Theatre of the Absurd, discovering his characters and their stories in a world ill-defined and unpredictable. Although there are ways in which this world seems familiar to us, Pinter challenges us to the point where we must reset our sensibilities in order to negotiate and appreciate the world he creates. If we can do that—if we can allow ourselves to fall into a more poetic sense of space and time—we are often rewarded with a fascinating, if uneasy, theatrical experience.
Pinter challenges even the most knowing actors and directors, and without a team who delights in the kind of exploration of script and characters which Pinter's pieces require, the result can be disastrous. Fortunately, director Cynthia Meier and her cast obviously relish the work that a successful reading of Pinter requires.
The story—ostensibly, at least—concerns husband and wife Deeley (Joseph McGrath) and Kate (Avis Judd), and Kate's roommate from 20 years ago, Anna (Laura Lippman). As the play opens, Deeley and Kate are anticipating Anna's arrival. Their conversation helps establish who they are and their expectations of Anna. Pinter takes a straightforward, traditional approach to this scene, although his dialogue is sparse, odd and, often, quite funny.
When Anna arrives, the scene ramps up its energy as well as its ambiguity. Gradually, through sharing stories and memories, the relationships between these characters grow more uncertain, questionable and even threatening. We can't help but be curious about these folks. We are attracted and repelled. We experience humor and horror almost simultaneously. We watch and wait and wonder.
What makes this production work is the depth of insight that Meier and company discovered in their rehearsal process. They have made choices which make sense to them, and they commit to them fully. That's not to say that they force or bend Pinter's story to try to make it rationally accessible; they are absolutely in tune with the oddities and uncertainties that permeate Pinter's piece. But they have both unearthed and created enough subtext to make these characters absolutely credible. Without this commitment, and the skill to deliver it, the piece would be a big, annoying mess.
Instead, what develop are layers which shift and swirl and blend. We witness the emergence of Pinter's characteristic themes of the nature of time and memory, and the palpable sense of something sinister lurking around and within.
The technical elements of the production are simple. The set, designed by McGrath, suggests a room sparsely furnished with pieces upholstered in stark-white fabric. The costumes are all black. It's in this minimalist setting that the multiple layers of the characters unfold.
It's tempting to try to make sense of what we see and hear—to try to put things together so that we discover the meaning that Pinter intended. This impulse should be resisted; suspend a need to figure everything out. Pinter, prior to making a name in the theater, was a poet, and his plays often communicate more poetically than discursively. Archibald MacLeish's admonition in his "Ars Poetica" is good advice for how we should approach Pinter's work: "A poem should not mean, but be."
Prior to the presentation of Old Times, Meier and McGrath perform a six-minute Pinter playlet, "Night." It sets the tone and offers a bit of a map for what follows. And prior to that, as is generally the case at Rogue, there is live pre-show music. Musical director Dawn Sellers has chosen pieces by Astor Piazzolla, and performs on piano with violinist Tim Blevins and cellist James Beauchamp.
Rogue brings a sharply effective focus to Old Times, which results in a kaleidoscopic range of images and feelings for us to sort through, savor, discard and revel in. It's a rich experience.
Unfortunately, it's hard to find praise for the effort of the Now Theatre, which is presenting The Bald Soprano, an Absurdist masterpiece by Eugène Ionesco.
Rogue incubates this group to foster the development of young theater folk, giving them not only an outlet for their ideas and skills, but hoping they might attract and help build a young audience. The Now Theatre presents their work a half-hour or so following Old Times.
The Now Theatre's approach to The Bald Soprano is ill-conceived, demonstrating a lack of understanding of Theatre of the Absurd, and how Ionesco's work embodies it. The power—and, most of all, the great humor—of The Bald Soprano results from a straight and restrained approach to this drawing-room scene of ordinary folks attempting to enforce the rules of proper behavior and convention without the means to communicate.
Generally, in Absurdist theater, regular people try to negotiate an absurd world. Here, the interpretation results in absurd characters behaving ridiculously. Co-directors Nic Adams and Brad Kula have missed the boat, and although the cast of six gamely embraces their approach, the production is DOA.
Better luck next time, guys.