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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Lizards and other lovers in Albee’s SEASCAPE at Common Ground

Samantha Corey, Ryan Brock, JohnHoneycutt and Julie Oliver in "Seascape"

Samantha Corey, Ryan Brock, John Honeycutt and Julie Oliver in South Stream Productions’ SEASCAPE, now playing at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Patrick Campbell.

This article originally appeared in print in INDYWEEK, 1/8/2014, with the headline “Who’s afraid of getting old?” and online on Indyweek.com with the title “Two adventurous couples in Seascape.”

Edward Albee has written many plays of a scale suitable for production by small, even ephemeral, groups in modest black box spaces. Mostly Albee requires ruthless engagement with intimate human passions and a vast appreciation for foible and anomaly.

Theater artists are not the only ones with those qualities. Many attorneys exhibit them, too, and it’s an attorney who directs Albee’s relatively gentle 1975 Pulitzer-winning Seascape, in which a quartet—one human couple, one giant sea lizard couple—poke and push at one another as they struggle to figure out how to get on with life on the far side of middle age. Brook North organized South Stream Productions in order to put on the three-actor play Copenhagen a year ago; Seascape is his first production since.

After some initial stiffness, Julie Oliver and John Honeycutt, as Nancy and Charlie, sashayed through the skirmishes of the long-married couple just after Charlie ‘s retirement. They are on a beach. He’s trying to nap; he’s “earned some rest,” he says. Nancy, though, is all for action. In her mind, now that she’s gotten her family raised and her man back from the world of work, there’s a new kind of freedom. She’s all for a course of action radically different from any they’ve known. She’d like to sell up and make a vagabond life, going from beach to beach. She wants to see far continents from their coastlines.

The first act sets up the questions, philosophical and practical, facing Nancy and Charlie, and airs their past while quickly limning their psychologies. This is a wonderful role for Oliver, and she goes to town with it, delivering Albee-esque bombshells with utter cool. Honeycutt is more quietly expressive, making his explosions more unsettling (and he’s as charming as ever, with that twinkling eye), but you have to like talk to appreciate this play. The people can hardly move about—much of the stage space is filled with an encroaching sand dune, which Nancy sometimes mounts in her pushing at the boundaries of their small flat space. She prods Charlie into telling of his glorious experiences of sinking underwater and becoming one with that liquid environment. Then she nags him to “go under” again.

In the meantime, the lizard couple, Leslie (Ryan Brock) and Sarah (Samantha Corey), having completed their fertile years, have decided to go up, and explore life on land. As Act 2 opens, the lizards come over the dune. From this point, South Stream’s Seascape is delightful. Brock and Corey are fantastic, their physicality increasing the sense of pressure in the scene. Shannon Clark’s costumes, with stupendous tails, cover them completely, leaving only their faces to be made up in beautiful green and yellow patterns. The interactions between lizards and humans are enlightening to all, and often evoke gusts of laughter from the audience. What a great start to the 2014 year in theater.

SEASCAPES continues Jan. 10-12 and Jan. 16-19 at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre. For ticket information, click here.

 

 

COCK: a recent play on the perennial theme of the wandering rooster

The program for COCK, British author Mike Bartlett’s 2009 play that ends its run at Manbites Dog Theater Oct. 19, includes a verse from a song by the late great Willie Dixon that gets right to the heart of the matter: “Now if you see my lil red rooster, somebody please drive him home…ain’t been no peace in the barnyard since my lil red rooster been gone.” The lil red rooster in COCK is a pusillanimous young man named John, believably acted by Phil Watson, who wanders away from his longtime boyfriend, M, and wanders back again, ruffling up his cockade and testing his spurs on M, who submits–again and again. Gregor McElvogue as M gives a performance that repeatedly surprises, through an emotional range several octaves wider than his roles generally allow. Seeing McElvogue tender and needy and begging is quite something.

John (Phil Watson) attempts to reconcile with his boyfriend (Gregor McElvogue), in Manbites Dog Theater's production of COCK, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Jeff Storer. Through Oct. 19 at MDT in Durham. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

John (Phil Watson) attempts to reconcile with his boyfriend (Gregor McElvogue), in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of COCK, by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Jeff Storer. Through Oct. 19 at MDT in Durham. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

A fragment of 15th c. rooster-decorated Florentine majolica found in the cloister of San Agostino, Pietrasanta, Toscano, Italia, on display in that building which now houses the town's public library, civic museum and Museo dei Bozzetti.

A fragment of 15th c. cock-decorated Florentine majolica found in the cloister of San Agostino, Pietrasanta, Italia.

The twist here is that John takes up with a woman, W, played with considerable verve by Emma D. Miller. She’s closer to his age; she’s shorter than he; she’s sweet and gorgeous and uncomplicated and kind. And she thinks she’s done got her a fine rooster for her own yard. All she needs to do is go back and close the gate real tight over at M’s place, and her lil red rooster will come on home with her.

But she has a lot to learn about the nature of the beast.

And about what may happen when two roosters get into a cockfight, especially when one calls in his old daddy to help (John Honeycutt, a pleasure to watch, as usual).

Director Jeff Storer sets the fast-moving talk-action in the round, on an adversarial red circle. There is no furniture, nary a prop, no sound or music–just a bell marking the end of each round of the struggle and the beginning of the next. It’s an effective set-up, keeping you off-balance through the emotional surges. Its extreme stylization keeps you focused on the ideas and problems central to the play, which is good, as the people are not all that likable.

Glass rooster, anonymous, 18th/19th c., in the Museo del Vetro, Murano.

Glass cock, anonymous, 18th/19th c., in the Museo del Vetro, Murano, Italia.

You end up feeling considerable sympathy for all of them, however. They each have already struggled with their own situations and identities, and now, when they thought the hard stuff was figured out, here’s another baffling mess of love and longing. And power games.

Sigh.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this play is the glimpse it provides of what may be the next battleground in the struggle to understand (and control) evolving human sexuality. John, the lil red rooster, is forced by girlfriend, boyfriend and father to make an either/or choice. He must choose W or choose M, there is no other way. But he wants to make a both-of-the-above choice. He finally does choose one, but it diminishes him cruelly. Winner takes all, but all is merely a trophy, not love.

Can you imagine how the feathers will fly when the roosters tell the legislatures that justice requires acceptance of bi-sexual polyamory? No justice, no peace in the barnyard, whether or not the lil red rooster stays home.

"Hahn/Cock" by German artist Katharina Fritsch currently lords it over the public in London, on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth.

“Hahn/Cock” by German artist Katharina Fritsch currently lords it over the public in London, on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Its blue coloration is meant to convey peace.

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