You might call Scena director Robert McNamara’s Pinter Rep an arranged marriage of sorts – four short plays by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, the British playwright of such full length plays as Betrayal and The Birthday Party.
Known for his staccato dialogue and ambiguous plotlines, these four works, One for the Road, Mountain Language, The New World Order, and the U.S. premiere of one his recently discovered pieces, The Pres and an Officer, are a good introduction to the world of Pinter. All but the first are shorter than a standard one act; indeed, the last, is really a quick scene.
closes May 5, 2019
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These are four works about state-sponsored violence and its victims. In each play, it doesn’t matter what the State has done or why the victims are hauled before it. The subject is the naked exercise of power, and the pain and humiliation of the victims. In a sense, it is almost like seeing the same play in four different ways.
The finest of the pieces is the first, One for the Road. Christopher Henley (a fellow reviewer for DCTS, it should be noted) is quirky, funny and darkly menacing as Nicolas, a high-ranking interrogator for a particularly brutal State. With his posh accent, he murmurs deeply unsettling and peculiar thoughts to a terrified man bound to a chair. Nicolas coos and giggles; he tells jokes; he pours himself whiskey after whiskey, promising himself “one for the road”. When his victim begs Nicolas to kill him, Nicolas upbraids him for despair. That would spoil Nicolas’ fun.
Nicolas moves on to interrogate both the victim’s son (Cecilia Smith), whose innocent, playful attitude toward the dangerous interrogator makes us shudder, like a YouTube video of a kitten playing with a cobra. Later, Nicolas takes a different tack with the victim’s wife Gila, (Irina Koval) who appears trembling in a slip, with bruises about her face. She has clearly been sexually assaulted with potentially worse to come. To her, Nicolas is particularly brutal, slapping and cursing her. This is misogyny, of course, but even worse, it is misogyny with a purpose, done to brutalize the victim in a gruesomely particularized way. Finally, Nicolas is rejoined by the first victim, and as the interrogator forces liquor down his victim’s throat, we learn the father’s grotesque fate, and that which may already have been the fate of his family.
While Henley turns in a fine performance as befits Nicolas’ evil, mercurial character, it is Robert Sheire as the Prisoner who has the toughest assignment. With only six lines, two of them repeated, Sheire is in a state of terror throughout, on the verge of hysteria, and, finally, total despair without moving from the interrogation chair.
That’s the crux of these playlets: we get the fact of brutality, not their details. In Mountain Language, the second piece in the quartet, an elderly woman (Karin Rosnizeck) visits her son (Mikey Bevarelli), who is in state custody for unknown reasons. The State has declared her “mountain language”- the only language she knows – dead and illegal to speak on custodial grounds. She is mute, therefore, in front of her son. Moments later, that order is rescinded, and she remains mute, unable to comprehend the whims of the new regime.
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In The New World Order, Henley, having played the brutalizer in the first play, has his turn as a victim in the hands of yet another brutal and all-powerful State. He’s a good one, too, whining and shivering in his underpants as two interrogators (Robert Sheire and Greg Ongao) dance around in a state approaching religious ecstasy as they contemplate the horror they are going to visit on that intellectual, that man with opinions. When Ongao’s character suddenly starts weeping, you may be tempted to think that Pinter has imagined a play in which a minion of the State comes to realize how he has desecrated his own humanness. If so, the joke’s on you.
Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself twice: first as tragedy and then as farce. So it is here. Pinter never lived to see the last piece, The Pres and an Officer performed. Found written on a notepad by his widow two years ago, it is the shortest and weakest of the four. Robert McNamara portrays a Godfather-like American President and Christopher Henley plays his officer. Hidden behind bronze reflective sunglasses with a cigar at the ready, the pompous Pres orders a nuclear attack on the wrong country, to the astonishment of his officer who must deliver the order. On first impression, it seems more of a Trump SNL skit. Yet beneath the comedy – and it is funny – there is something chilling. Pinter died in 2008, and, were it produced then, it would have been considered absurd.
Pinter’s a master of using innocent words and giving them the whiff of doom. Untangling the lines doesn’t change the fact that oppressive regimes are on the rise, and most of the time, human beings know only a small percentage of what’s really going on.
The Nobel Committee noted Pinter “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry in oppression’s closed rooms.” Never more so than in this well chosen Pinter Rep.
Pinter Rep by Harold Pinter . Director: Robert McNamara . Asst Director: Anne Nottage . Cast: Mikey Bevarelli as Prisoner/Hooded Man; Christoper Henley as Nicolas/Sergeant/Blindfolded Man/Officer; David Johnson/Guard; Irina Koval as Gila/Young Woman; Greg Ongao as Second Guard/Lionel; Karin Rosnizeck as Elderly Woman; Robert Sheire as Victor/Officer; Cecelia Smith as Nicky; Lewsha-Camille Simboura as u/s Gila/Young Woman . Set Design: John Anton . Costume Design: Mei Chen . Lighting Design: Jonathan Alexander . Sound Design: Denise Rose . Fight Director: Paul Gallagher . Stage Manager: Mavonte Johnson . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.