Upstart’s Pinter: Prime Time Performance

With PINTER: Art, Politics, Truth, Upstart Production’s three one-act evening by celebrated British playwright Harold Pinter, the company sprouts wings and soars into uncharted artistic ether. Three challenging one acts, spanning twenty years of the playwright’s creative life — three young directors, none with extensive directing credentials, each attempting to establish their third of the evening independently yet in alignment within a synchronistic production vision — a diverse regional cast, ranging from seasoned pros to an ‘old soul’ middle school student. Sophisticated and startling, sharp as a paper cut on God’s finger from dog-earing pages in the book of universal mindfulness – PINTER: Art, Politics, Truth offers an elegantly cadenced evening of theater, in spite of some less than ideal directing and acting choices. The production honors the playwright appropriately while keeping firm focus on the needs of a contemporary audience. It’s bold, hip and haunting, for the most part.

Zachary Broadhurst’s simple set prefigures the evening’s tone, directing full audience attention to actors and text. The Project X flat, industrial “box” space allows an enterprising designer ample opportunity to create whatever reality he/she imagines. Two free-floating, rotating walls, placed at eye-leading angles, flank a central playing area shared by all three one–acts. Each play adds minimal set pieces and props, tailoring the universal walls to specific play realities without forcing lengthy time for set changes. Upstage, a film screen provides unique genuine impact. Excerpts from playwright Pinter’s videotaped 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech open the performance and interject his incisive personalized commentary between the one acts. It’s professional, clean, dignified and effective. The artist, himself: sans filter.

Upstart’s show program indicates that Harold Pinter wrote the two shorter pieces A Kind of Alaska in 1982 and One for the Road in 1984; they feel like they belong together in production, even as their subject matter differs. He wrote his final play, Celebration, in 2000. It doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit with the other two plays, in style or sense. Raw-edged commentary on class and sexual politics, it was apparently inspired by Pinter’s experiences as a waiter.

Celebration

Coincidentally, the play’s waiter (portrayed with comic deadpan restraint by Michael Rains) is its most sympathetic character and pronounces the play’s last and best line. Did Pinter intend for this play to be presented as light as a drawing room comedy? The couples feel like couples; their accents betray lower class backgrounds with awkward pretensions to upward mobility. The wait-staff fairly drips haughty obsequiousness masking envious disgust. Director Donny Covington creates engaging stage pictures and believable moments. Still, the comic banter tends to overshadow the power of the commentary. An admirable undertaking, quite enjoyable to watch, it feels a tad off kilter from playwright intention.

Diana Gonzalez reprises her directorial role from ICT Theatre on the Edge with A Kind of Alaska, as do Amber Devlin in the lead role of Deborah and Connie Lane as her sister Pauline. The success of these previous performances haunts this incarnation. Connie Lane’s portrayal embodies a Pieta-like devotional dedication. Randy Pearlman’s somber, measured performance as the doctor Hornby who has spent his life caring for the comatose sister with selfless love, balances Lane’s Pauline with exemplary grace.

A Kind of Alaska

Expectations of Devlin’s performance mar the impression given here. Her robust, muscular physicality belies the fact that she awakens from a decades-long coma to step from her bed. Boldly and vigorously, with a perfunctory amount of indicative weaving and shuffling? The script indicates that she became comatose in her later teen years, yet Devlin’s realization of the character behaves puzzlingly more like a pre-teen. All three actors exhibit a thorough understanding of Pinter’s lyrical expressiveness, making their performances highly satisfying from that viewpoint.

The most stage-worthy one act of the evening is the savage, intense One for the Road, ostensibly Pinter’s first foray into political theater. Adrian Churchill gives a formidable performance as a civilized, urbane, utterly dedicated reformer/torturer. He doesn’t need to wield a lead pipe, forceps or electrodes to send shivers up audience members’ spines. Easy to imagine him ripping off fingernails or extracting teeth with patently dispassionate sadism without a demonstration or teeth-knashing.

One For The Road

Beau Trujillo as torture victim Victor exhibits desperate stoicism mixed with palpable animalistic fear in his scenes with Churchill. Meredith Morton as Victor’s wife, a benumbed, dehumanized gang rape victim defines her role with fragile dignity, almost as if repeated violation has driven her into a post-traumatic meditative state. Jack O’Connor as their son Nicky manages to make his character both tragic and obnoxiously defiant. With the shortest scene and the fewest lines, this Dallas seventh grader matches Churchill in memorable performance impact. Director Mason York firmly builds the play’s tension across its linear structure, never pushing the scenes’ limits for cloying drama but fully confronting the audience with the insane realities of torturer and tortured.

In its three-year lifetime Upstart Productions has earned a reputation for producing artistically truthful and provocative productions. Directorial guidance from regional experienced, professional performance artists (Rene Moreno, Regan Adair) has contributed handily to the accumulation of lauded, critically acclaimed success. With PINTER: Art, Politics, Truth, Upstart hands the visionary reins over to emerging directors. Perfect realizations of Pinter’s works the productions may not be; brave, memorable, intriguing, worthy stage performances they certainly are. Harold Pinter would applaud the undertaking, surely.

Upstart Productions’ PINTER: Art, Politics, Truth runs through November 20, 2010, a co-production with Project X Theatre, at the Green Zone, 161 Riveredge Dr in Dallas. http://www.upstarttheater.com

Photos by Marc Rouse

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