THE CARETAKER: Pinter’s 3 Men in a Funk

South Stream Productions is currently revisiting Harold Pinter’s 1960 play, The Caretaker, at Common Ground Theatre–an excellent choice of play for the small, actor-driven enterprise. The three-man, one-scene, tragi-comic drama provides demanding roles for John Honeycutt, Brook North and Ryan Brock, and under Jaybird O’Berski’s direction, they mesmerize in this bleak examination of shifting power relationships.

 

L to R: Brook North, Ryan Brock and John Honeycutt in South Stream Productions' version of THE CARETAKER. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

L to R: Brook North, Ryan Brock and John Honeycutt in South Stream Productions’ version of THE CARETAKER, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

 

Pinter’s script was set in post-WWII England, and has been modified here with American place names and given a 1970s milieu. It takes place in a dim, grubby apartment so full of broken stuff and miscellaneous parts that the characters must shift things around constantly to move through the space. This heaving and tossing contributes greatly to the sensation of imbalance created by the changing relationships among the characters as their perceptions of each other change or clarify. The three acts are merged here into one, a long pitiless see-sawing which ultimately reaches stasis. O’Berski’s acute direction and timing do justice to Pinter’s nuances, and his stringent absurdity. As is O’Berski’s wont, there is the bare minimum of separation between “stage” and audience–the darkness of this little world, its chaos and confusion, is all over the viewer like the funky smells of old stuff and worn shoes emanating from it.

 

Brook North as Aston. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

Brook North as Aston. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The apartment is inhabited by Aston, played by the tall and large Brook North in a belted leather coat, aviator shades and a floppy wig. Aston doesn’t have a lot to say, generally, and it’s clear from the beginning that he’s not quite right, although big and strong. When he finally does tell a story, it becomes the emotional center of the play. North beautifully reveals the man behind Aston’s abstracted, affectless exterior, the soft vulnerable core so well wrapped in coat and dark glasses.

The play opens with his return to the apartment with a talkative homeless man, Davies, who Aston has just rescued from a bar fight. John Honeycutt’s performance as Davies is outstanding. Strict verisimilitude might require somewhat more dirt ingrained on his clothes and skin, but Honeycutt has caught the unnerving mixture of groveling hostility, pitiable boasting and outraged pride that one finds in long-homeless men. He exhibits their feral cunning that combines false innocence with instinctual jockeying for self-advantage, and that makes taking in strays such a dangerous business. Aston wants to hire him as caretaker of the apartment building.

Just when Davies has begun to think that he can switch this situation around, from the being the visitor there on charity to being the man in charge, in pops Aston’s brother Mick–gorgeously played by Ryan Brock in his swaggering explosive mode. Turns out it is Mick’s building–and he wants to hire Davies as caretaker. Naturally, this leads Davies to attempt to play the brothers off against each other, and to the funniest of the miscommunications with which the story is rife–later Mick says, no–he wanted a decorator, not a caretaker. The whole play pushes at the problems of saying what one means, and of hearing what others say.

Another motif runs through the work, that of insiders and outsiders, or “foreigners.” Who belongs together, and who is “other?” Who’s crazy, who’s normal? Who’s playing on your team, and will they defect? In the end, Pinter takes a position…but it could shift.

I saw the matinee on January 4. The show continues tonight, Jan. 8, through the 10th at 7:30 p.m., and on the 11th at 2 p.m., and again at the same times Jan. 15-18.

John Honeycutt as the fast-talking Davies. At no time is there as much light on the set as this photo suggests. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

John Honeycutt as the fast-talking Davies.  Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

 

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Make Love Not War

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern premieres new work by Monica Byrne, TARANTINO’S YELLOW SPEEDO, at Manbites Dog Theater

 

Kana Hatakeyama as Eun Mi Youn and Dan Wales as Esteban Calvo in LGP's world premiere production of TARANTINO'S YELLOW SPEEDO. Photo: Alex Maness.

Kana Hatakeyama as Eun Mi Youn and Dan Wales as Esteban Calvo in LGP’s world premiere production of TARANTINO’S YELLOW SPEEDO. Photo: Alex Maness.

Durham writer Monica Byrne‘s willfully provocative new play previewed last night, and will have its official world premiere tonight at Manbites Dog Theater. It hooks you right from the start–what a title! Produced and presented by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, its 13-member cast is tautly directed by Jaybird O’Berski. It’s about sex, personal freedom, love, and the destruction of the nation-state, more or less in that order of importance. Speedo takes place in the Olympic Village, where athletes from many cultures receive some special training in polyamory and other forms of boundary-busting, taught by “ambassadors”  from a cult idolizing a diver named Arturo Tarantino. Tarantino espoused a philosophy of separating oneself from artificial, fear-based constrictions like sexual monogamy and jealousy, and instead making love with many people. He believed that this would erase boundaries between people, lead to world peace and the dissolution of geo-political borders. He called his desirable state of loving psycho-sexual satisfaction “the zone.” One day Tarantino got so completely zoned out that, after executing an “impossible” perfect dive, he just disappeared in the bubbles. His yellow Speedo floated to the top, to become a relic for his followers, and a symbol awarded to trainees who see the light and take off their clothes for this new world order.

Nicola Bullock dancing as Khala, while Mia (Caitlin Wells) suffers in sequestration behind the scrim. Photo: Alex Maness.

Nicola Bullock dancing as Khala, while Mia (Caitlin Wells) suffers in sequestration behind the scrim. Photo: Alex Maness.

There are so many things to talk about here. The content, as illustrated by the preposterous story, has challenges for viewers all along the belief spectrum. Although the play declares the glory of polyamory, asserting its naturalness, it looks clearly at one of its costs. Main characters Khala (Nicola Bullock) and Mia (Caitlin Wells) start off as a happy married couple (trap shooters from Team USA); by the end, Mia’s wrecked and stranded on the shores of Khala’s new boundary-free world.

Structurally, the play is very clever. It’s outrageous enough to get under your guard, should you be so old-school as to have one, and Byrne and director O’Berski are very skilled at getting you to immediately suspend disbelief and go with the story. They are greatly aided in this by the Olympic-coverage-style video designed by

Cameron McCallie as a German wrestler, and Emily Anderson as a South African fencer. Photo: Alex Maness.

Cameron McCallie as a German wrestler, and Emily Anderson as a South African fencer. Photo: Alex Maness.

Alex Maness and Don Bonné. Speedo‘s outrageous enough, but not so outrageous. The only thing I found shocking was the play’s un-ambivalent declaration in favor of unprotected sex–no condoms for all these couplings. In fact, the play’s most memorable line, uttered by Khala after her training partnering with Suileman (Allen Tedder, very elegant), is about his having painted the walls of her vagina with semen graffiti. In Arturian Sex, not only must there be skin-to-skin contact, but exchange of fluids.

Yep, that’s the natural way. But making this philosophical statement strikes me as significant and ignorant, joyous and idiotic, all at once. We are hardly living in a post-AIDS world, let alone post-Herpes or post-Gonorrhea–that formerly-minor sexual pest is now drug-resistant. But Byrne can never have lived as an adult in a world without the threat of sexually transmitted diseases, and, oh!– that unfurling of the banner for sexual freedom for the glorious bodies of youth, the freedom to unsheathe –it’s an alluring, lovable cause.

And so impractical, as are the logistics of polyamory (love may be endless, but time is not), that one suspects Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo of being allegorical, on top of fantastical. There’s kind of a Liberty Leading the People quality to it, with the playwright waving the flag and urging the bold freedom fighters over the barricades. At any rate, there’re about five plays worth of ideas woven into 90 short minutes, so there is bound to be a certain amount of abstraction.

The ideas take precedence over relationship development. Khala and Mia are such interesting characters that–although Bullock and Wells were quite fine–I would have liked them to live more fully, to seem less like animations Byrne designed to illustrate her concerns. On preview night, I thought the whole play more mechanical, less vibrant than Byrne’s earlier, brilliant, What Every Girl Should Know. It is, however, far more complex and ambitious than Girl, and written in a far more bold and confident voice. One thing that makes Speedo so intriguing is that it is part of the Monica Byrne story, unfolding on the larger stage (and her Facebook page, and Twitter feed…). Byrne’s first novel also came out this week. Read the Indyweek review of Girl in the Road here.

But back to Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo. Strong cast, all appealing, though there is not enough nudity, and there is considerable weirdness with accents. Ishai Buchbinder is adorable as a Ukrainian badminton Olympian, but it’s unnerving when he slips into his Irish accent. Kana Hatakeyama, kicking ass as a North Korean field hockey competitor, lets her accent go all over the globe. Possibly this is intentional–no border in the new world order. Jess Jones excels as Fatima, a lightweight Bosnian boxer with plenty of nerve and a very enticing headscarf.

The design work for the show is particularly strong, too. Steve Tell’s lighting, the costumes by Marlyn Wells and Dana Marks,  Matt Hooks’ set, and especially, the smart music track by Adam Lindquist, all serve the greater good with panache. Director O’Berski has successfully recombined many of his best structures and gestures here. The overlapping scenes are done with finesse, and working with choreographer Nicola Bullock, he’s put together some great rushing, stage-crossing movements using the large cast. (Bullock and friends have a dance performance coming in June–more on that soon.)

Preview night was sold out, and Manbites Dog reports that tickets for this weekend are nearly gone. The show runs through June 7, but you might want to go ahead and buy advance tickets here.

 

Caitlin Wells and Nicola Bullock in Monica Byrne's TARANTINO'S YELLOW SPEEDO. At Manbites Dog through June 7. Photo: Alex Maness.

Caitlin Wells (Mia) and Nicola Bullock (Khala) in Monica Byrne’s TARANTINO’S YELLOW SPEEDO.  At Manbites Dog through June 7. Photo: Alex Maness.

 

 

 

 

 

Leviathan’s 21st century AMADEUS at Common Ground Theatre

John Jimerson as Salieri in Leviathan's production of AMADEUS. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

John Jimerson as Salieri in Leviathan’s production of AMADEUS. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The very considerable local theatrical talent in Durham is in a constant state of flux with groups forming or re-forming for specific purposes from the same pool of players, designers and managers, who vagabond from stage to stage. Well-known local actor John Jimerson is now also managing director of Leviathan Theatre Company, and his company is currently presenting Peter Shaffer’s 1979 Amadeus, with Jimerson in the role of Antonio Salieri. As edited and staged by Leviathan and director Jaybird O’Berski, the play digs into some of art’s difficult realities even as it explores the fraught relations between two men struggling for success in 18th-century musical Vienna.

Poor Salieri, a Catholic who thinks he’s made a deal with God, is happy with his life as a court composer–until the spoiled, obscene young genius Amadeus Mozart blazes into town, and Salieri knows himself as a mediocre hack. He is, however, a hack with some power, and he thwarts Mozart at every turn while pretending to be his friend. Mozart, half-mad and alone, dies at 35 while writing his great Requiem; Salieri lives long with his guilt. Shaffer has taken some liberties with the the lives of these men. His story is not altogether about them, but uses them to expatiate on the disjunct between moral behavior and output of artistic greatness, and on the relationship between passion and art. It’s about the power of jealousy and the meanness of power; and, perhaps, about the fruitlessness of dealmaking with any god that would stoop to such a thing. Jimerson does a good job with both the man and the philosophizing, especially with the core speech about realizing the paucity of his work in relation to Mozart’s. In a number of places, he and O’Berski have placed the emphasis so that one is steered toward the big ideas and away from the bathos and comedy.

Mozart is played here by Jade Arnold, who sports thick white make-up, a surprising wig, and body-covering costumes (excellent costuming by Chelsea Kurtzman). Arnold has been impressive in previous shows, but here in full whiteface disguised as a white man behaving badly, he is astonishing. Whether the full disguise is to credit, or director O’Berski, or simply the natural growth of an actor, I don’t know, but Arnold just kicks it out here, abandoning previously observed mannerisms and tricks of timing to produce a fresh and heart-churning interpretation of this role. Naturally, considering the creative parties involved, he has to do some fairly ridiculous stuff on stage and make it matter. Prime example here is his straight-faced singing of  a reconciliation song with his wife Costanze (Molly Forlines, voluptuous and nasty) derived from such a song in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro–but done here like an alt-country duet. The singing was delightful, and the cognitive dissonance at the sight, even better.

Jade Arnold as Mozart in Leviathan's AMADEUS, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Jaybird O'Berski.

Jade Arnold as Mozart in Leviathan’s AMADEUS, at Common Ground Theatre through April 12. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

The rest of the cast is strong. Tony Perucci is completely fabulous as Kasier Joseph II–so languid in his power and petulance, and so weighted by the enormity of his antler crown that he can barely move. Trevor Johnson, Liam O’Neill and Laurie Wolf each make an indelible impression as the counts and barons of the court. Salieri is attended by two “venticelli” played with mystery and alacrity by Caitlin Wells and Carly Prentiss Jones. Their make-up is particularly strong.

The visual aspects of this production take it far out of the ordinary. The extensive use of bold make-up and overstated wigs, sometimes augmented with intriguing masks by newcomer Wil Deedler, in combination with Kurtzman’s high-impact costuming, makes any set superfluous. The back wall of the small stage space at Common Ground Theatre has been removed to allow us to peer into the backstage murk, and to see the ladder Tony Perucci, as the Kaiser, must negotiate between his aerie and the stage floor. Other than that, there are a few props and chairs, and R.S. Buck’s smart lighting. The only technical deficiency is the sound. It is always difficult to hear in that space when it is undressed, but on the 29th there was some kind of feedback issue with some of the miked sound, and the equipment available to play Mozart’s music was inadequate to the task. However, when the actors spoke unmiked, they were all very clear, and used their voices to strong emotional effect.

I squeezed into the show by the skin of my teeth last Saturday–it sold out. I expect word-of-mouth will make tickets scarce for the remainder of the run (through April 12), so make reservations before going out to Common Ground for this imaginative revival of a multi-layered play.

 

David Cecelski

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