Thursday, February 11, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Another Room" (on Pinter's The Room)

another room
by Douglas Messerli

Harold Pinter The Room (performance by the Wooster Group) / the performance I saw, with Pablo, was at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in the Disney Music Center on February 9, 2016

This review is “illegal,” outlawed, evidently, by the licensing company of Samuel French, Inc. and Harold Pinter’s British agent, Judy Daish.* Critics have been told that because of “licensing irregularities” (a misunderstanding, evidently, by the Wooster Group that permission to perform the play in New York City would extend to Los Angeles and other places to which they might to wish to tour it), that critics would not be permitted to review the work.

      How in the US a British agent might ban free speech about a shared cultural event is rather inexplicable, and I certainly, do not have any intention of heeding such nonsense. What it does demonstrate is the lack of perspective (how anyone might perceive a Wooster Group performance might be competing with other productions is beyond me) and meanness of spirit of Pinter’s agents. Or perhaps it simply parallels, unintentionally, the sense of menace that The Room in more normative productions projects.
       In Pinter’s works generally the actors behave as if they are in a naturalistic world, while their underlying language reveals that they are in an absurd universe dominated by perversion and paranoia. And it is that very tension that makes his plays so terrifying and often inexplicable. How to explain the sudden appearance of strange men who show up to celebrate a recluse boarder’s birthday party, while, apparently, seeking his destruction (The Birthday Party); or to comprehend the return of a married professor and his wife to his British home, wherein the wife quickly takes up a sexual relationship with a brother and comes to literally “embrace” the other brother and her husband’s randy father, her husband returning the US without her (The Homecoming).

      Or, more appropriately, what does one make of a complaining housewife, whose husband refuses throughout breakfast to speak, and whom, when her hubbie leaves for work, is threatened with eviction from a room where she and her husband have been comfortably living in, before, finally, being visited by a blind “negro” who asks her to “come home?”

       Everything depends on the tension between the seemingly realist portrayals of characters set against the utter strangeness of their language and the events they encounter. In Pinter’s plays, everything is slightly akilter, the world is out of whack. The kitchen sink drama has suddenly become an encounter with the absurd.
       In the Wooster Group’s rendition of the play, however, the menace is nearly wiped away as the characters speak in a kind of dry, unimpassioned monotone; another actor reads out the stage directions, reminding us that what we are witnessing is truly a play; at moments the characters inexplicably take up lutes and sing short, seemingly improvisatory ditties. Actors Kate Valk, the always wonderful Ari Fliakos, and Suzzy Roche mouth their lines as if they had been translated from another language on Wikipedia, sometimes using more than one microphone as if, in the small Redcat Theater, we might be unable to hear them if they were to speak naturally.

     By removing Pinter’s work from kitchen sink reality which they often emanate, not only is the fear of the characters (and their audiences) displaced, but the significance of their statements is erased. Without that everyday complacency, we recognize just how strange Pinter’s language really is, perceiving perhaps the oddity of what might at first have appeared to be ordinary speech. The characters seem be almost children who declaim without the ability to put their words into everyday context. Or perhaps, one might describe them as children who have not yet learned to pretend there are adults, not yet learned the proper way to lie.
     What we perceive instead, is just how comic Pinter’s words are; as if they were borscht-belt or dance-hall comedians, reacting to the series of absurd events precisely as clowns instead of supposedly living-and-breathing folk, these actors point up the syntax of Pinter’s menace and terror, as opposed to instilling it with a sense of possible reality.

      And while that deflates the play itself, it forces us to actually listen to Rose’s empty observations and complaints the way her silent husband, Bert, must endure them. As Mr. Kidd, Fliakos sounds as confused about who and what he is as Rose is assured by the warm fire of her space heater and the clatter of her pots and pans. The slightly shell-shocked Sands (Roche and Fliakos), having just visited the “damp” and “dark” basement, seem in desperate need of someplace to spend the night.
     Only the blind “negro” Riley, played by Philip Moore as a somewhat blinkingly intelligent Ben Carson, seems to actually know what he’s about: demanding that “Sal” (an earlier  name for Rose?) return home; and it is he alone who gives a slightly more realist performance. Yet given the stick-figures around him, it is almost inevitable, in this fragile “reality,” that he be stomped to death by Bert, finally determined to “speak out.”

      I’m not sure that this is the best way to experience my beloved Pinter, but, as Pinter’s agents have made clear, there will be lots of other productions in the near future, which will surely more carefully match the tone of the original works. But here, at least, we get an opportunity to explore another Pinter, a writer with a sharp wit who questioned the whole notion of what our “reality” really means.

Los Angeles, February 10, 2016

*I had a similar run-in with Judy Daish, when I called her one year in the late 1990s to enquire about the book rights to Jean Genet’s play, The Pope, a work that had never been translated into English. Daish insisted that a big production in the US was imminent and that, certainly, she would not offer the rights to a small press such as my Green Integer. Since then, to my knowledge, there has been no major production in the US, and no publication (except an unauthorized, personally published one) of the text.

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