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.

 

 

Ivey on Ice Skates, and Other Pleasures in THE HOMOSEXUALS at Manbites

UPDATE: DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND, THE RUN OF THIS SHOW HAS BEEN EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 25. PLAYWRIGHT PHILIP DAWKINS WILL BE PRESENT FOR A POST-SHOW CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR JEFF STORER ON FRIDAY, MAY 25.

The play that’s running through May 18, closing out Manbites Dog Theater‘s jubilant 25th season, may be the very best I’ve seen in all their years. A script without a false note, The Homosexuals provides opportunity for extraordinary ensemble acting by several of the Triangle’s most consistently fine actors, under the direction of Jeff Storer, MDT’s co-founder and professor in Duke’s Theater Studies program. Philip Dawkins’ bright 2011 play has a moving story, with likable characters who engage in delicious dialogue during believable situations as they all search for love and happiness. And, it is all about being “gay, gay, GAY!”

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer

Evan (Ryan Brock) and British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) meet to discuss real estate and other important things. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

The first three contenders for best-ever at Manbites that sprang to mind were The Vanishing Point, from 2007; God’s Ear, from 2010; and The Brothers Size, from 2012. Jeff Storer directed two of these (Joseph Megel the third) but Derrick Ivey–who is fabulous, darling, as theatre director Peter in The Homosexuals–had something to do with the excellence of each of the earlier three, through lead roles and/or set design. He’s crucial here, though inseparable from the rest of the ensemble.

The multi-talented Ivey also designed costumes and the versatile set for The Homosexuals, in which the action moves backwards in time. Simple pieces are rearranged as needed for the scenes–the same objects can become beds or sofas or benches–and behind them in a dimly lit arc against the back wall wait the props and actors of the future scenes, scenes have already occurred and that form part of the collective memory for the friends we’re watching on stage at the moment. Ranged behind, out of reach of fear and struggle and joy, the characters off stage observe their past unfold with attentive tenderness. Our observation of their observation tinges the fresh immediacy of the situations with a poignant hue: This is a lovely stage device to augment to lovely, transparent acting.

The first scene opens with Evan (Ryan Brock, pictured left, above) waiting for Peter (Derrick Ivey) at a skating rink. Watching the upright Ivey, who usually does not flail around on stage, make his entrance on ice skates, flamboyant and teetering, is alone worth the ticket price. But everything after that is even better.

The year is 2010, a decade after the young Evan arrived in the big city. He left in the hinterlands a family who couldn’t love him when he came out as gay. He arrived, like so many before him, scared, confused, hurt, poor, and ready for the big adventure. Ryan Brock could have been built for this role. He’s ridiculously good-looking (and still young enough to look very young) with eyes that could melt an iceberg, and he doesn’t waste any energy on pointless moment, saving it for real action.  Almost in a daze upon his arrival, Evan goes to a candy store (!) and meets Michael (beautifully played by Jeffrey Moore), a really nice guy who invites him to a party, where he meets the close circle of friends who become his friends immediately. Except for Tam (Amber Wood, tough, wise-assed and affectionate), who marries British Mark so he can get a green card (Thaddaeus Edwards, impeccable whether his trousers are on or off), it’s a circle of men, gay men. Sometimes and for a while they may be lovers, but they are always friends–to such a degree that they constitute a family.

But we get all that gradually, through the six scenes, each centered on Evan’s interactions with a different friend, and each taking us back two years, until we arrive at the fateful party in 2000, when Evan meets everyone, and we get a glimpse of what drove him away from his former home. In addition to those mentioned above, the group includes Mark (Gregor McElvogue, charming, eloquent, irascible and a little daunting) and Collin (Chris Burner, very funny and endearing). We learn something of everyone’s struggles and adventures, especially in love and lust, and while we don’t watch them grow into the kind honest humans they become, we do get to see how they got that way. Damned if it isn’t about enough to renew faith in humanity. Plus, there are a lot of fine physiques on view.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

At the party: British Mark (Thaddaeus Edwards) and Collin (Chris Burner) dish with Tam (Amber Wood). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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