So for anyone who knows me the sports metaphor shouldn’t be a huge surprise, I’m a sports nut and I don’t hide it very well. And while this reference now permeates our athletic news coverage, for me there is only one source for this phrase and that is the late, great Mel Allen host of This Week in Baseball, one of my weekend warrior childhood heroes who used to spend Sunday afternoons on my TV trying to teach us youngsters the basics of the game. I remember being not quite old enough to grasp all of his lessons but I paid strict attention nonetheless because I could tell it was important. Though my days on the diamond have dwindled and you’re more apt to find me in the back of a darkened theater these days some of those early sports lessons were so impactful that I carry them with me today, primarily the yearning to figure out what is indeed important, and that is my aim with this new blog series. In sports the lines of allegiance are so easily drawn either by statistics, geography or athletic feats, but in theater separating the wheat from the chaff proves a much more challenging equation. For quite some time I have wanted to re-connect with and further fill out my theater knowledge and this desire seems even more pressing now as I contemplate my artistic future. So I am committing to reading and viewing more theater in hopes of sharing my thoughts with the world and through that process better identifying what it means to make “good” theater.
Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker starring Jonathan Pryce at The Curran Theater through April 22
There is a bit of irony in my venture to see opening night of The Caretaker at the Curran in that a mere 24 hours before I secured a ticket a poster caught my eye and a mildly engaging photo combined with the words Pinter and Jonathan Pryce caught my attention. The next morning waiting in my inbox was an email from my friend Valerie Weak (one of Theater Bay Area’s 35 Faces!) with a spare ticket that she nabbed in the TBA lottery. On our way into the theater Valerie remarked that it is so rare to be able to see Pinter’s work by people who know it well and can translate that intimate knowledge into a successful production. Two hours and twenty minutes later that statement would ring quite true for us. Not only was the great Jonathan Pryce fantastically captivating but he was tremendously supported by co-stars Alan Cox and Alex Hassell. Now ordinarily I shy away from these larger Broadway inspired venues and shows in the downtown area but for a glimpse at a touring production of Pinter I couldn’t resist, and how perfect to be able to kick off this blog series with a commendable production. While not groundbreaking in anyway, aside from being Pinter of course, the production was solid on all fronts (save the sound design which I will discuss later). The play is significant because it marks Pinter’s first real commercial success and is emblematic of his borderline realistic and absurdist style. This is what appeals to me so much about Pinter and he was in fact (other than the great Samuel Beckett) one of my first strong interests in playwrights. Unlike Beckett and his other contemporaries like Ionesco, I find Pinter to be much more grounded in reality with an absurdist flare, rather than all out like the dark and forlorn pieces by Beckett or the hilariously, wacky Ionesco. Pinter is I suppose much closer to Albee, though I find Albee’s writing much more intellectual and psychological, whereas Pinter speaks to me of the visceral making his pieces more human. And in fact, this piece struck me as so innately human and intriguing that I mostly found myself on the edge of my seat. At first, I was concerned because our mezzanine seats seemed like a football field away from the stage and I worried that innately intimate nature of Pinter’s work would be lost in that vast chasm. However, the expert performances by all three actors drew me in and, aside from an early adjustment my ear needed to make to account for the thick accents, I could hear and understand every word, a nod toward the lost art form of projection.
One of the main elements that I look for in every piece of theater I watch is the uniformity of vision. Having been involved in enough disjointed theater at this point, where costumes don’t match the set concept which all conflicts with the lighting color choices, I am easily irked by directors who can’t maintain a consistent vision for an entire piece of theater. This work lives up to that challenge, not that it was a tremendous challenge given that the entirety of the play takes place in a single dilapidated room, but they treated it all appropriately and with care. While I would have appreciated a little more inventiveness with the detritus that populated this room, I especially loved the stage layout. The simple room was equipped with angled roof and a sky light which lent itself both to interesting lighting options while also creating the claustrophobic feeling necessary for the piece, a wonderful balance that is often hard to strike in theater. Also, the choice to make the playing space a floating square contributed to the feeling of confinement while still allowing the space the openness to breath and invite the audience in. The major discord for me came with the sound design, mostly rain and ambient noise with a few key sounds like the drop of water in a bucket and the rustling of props getting batted about during a fight scene. I simply found the choices for the sound design called entirely too much attention to themselves and I found myself distracted by this. The ambient noises seemed mistimed and the crucial sound components seemed drastically out of place and overly loud, the most egregious of which was the sound of rain plunking in what sounded like a steel bucket when the bucket on stage was clearly made of some other material. Fortunately, there weren’t enough of sound cues to ruin the evening and what it was lacking in sound was more than made up for in costuming, which I found to be the highlight of the design aspects of the piece. The two brothers were dressed neatly, not fancy mind you, they each had a simple costume but they were both well kept and well put together. The reason this was so brilliant is that they lived in a mountain of squalor and I reveled in the juxtaposition of their cleanliness against the filth of the environment of their own making. In stark contrast to both of them was Pryce, appropriately robed in a simple dirty outfit that made him, the outsider, look a more appropriate addition to the landscape than either of the brothers that owned the house. However, this too contributed to the advancement of the story as both brothers at some point offer Pryce’s character a job and a long term commitment to stay only to rescind the offer as Pryce’s character develops. There was something beautifully needling about the way the costuming highlighted the contrast of character and status.
This was the rare occasion where I did not read the script prior to viewing the show but I never felt at a disadvantage because of it and frankly it piqued my interest in reading it. One thing I did notice was my ability to recognize both the influences preceding him that shephearded Pinter in the absurdist direction as well as the writers he influenced that followed him, of particular interest to me was being able to see the impact Pinter had on my favorite playwright Sam Shepard. In the aftermath of World War 2, many playwrights embraced absurdism as a way to diagnose the ills that had befallen the world. Pinter is the most intimate and character driven of those writers and in my opinion the effectiveness of this piece rings true even today when we are dealing with significant international conflict and a tremendous void in our societal identity. The show echoes these modern sentiments and was an absolute delight and I would encourage any theater enthusiast to check it out as it was a masterfully crafted work that is unfortunately rare in the Bay Area, plus it was worth every penny (as a side note you too can nab tickets if you become a TBA member and the cost is $70 for a whole year whereas the worst tickets at the Curran are $75 a piece).