Azusa Productions

at the Heartland Studio Theater

By Jack Helbig

You’d be hard-pressed to find two more different living playwrights writing in English than Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard. Yet here they are together, each represented by two one-acts, in Azusa Productions’ “Perfectly Pinter” at 8 and “Late-Night Shepard” at 10.

Pinter’s plays are all brittle dialogue and controlled responses and barely repressed pools of bitterness and rage and sorrow that keep leaking out at inappropriate times. Meanwhile Shepard’s characters blurt out their feelings in any sort of order, like a stranger who babbles on and on at you on the Greyhound to Saint Louis. And more often than not these feelings are exactly what you think they are at first, whereas with Pinter things are never what they seem. The loving family is overjoyed at the chance to emotionally castrate the successful son come home to visit (The Homecoming), and the shallow, optimistic lower-middle-class couple turn out to be expending a great deal of energy just to maintain their banal facades (The Birthday Party). If there’s any complexity hiding in Shepard’s details, by contrast, it’s only of the most obvious, shocking kind. (Oh my God, you mean these two bickering lovers are brother and sister?)

In Pinter’s world yes means no, and no means fuck off. Sometimes even yes means fuck off. While in Shepard’s world everything really means yes. Yes, we are family. Yes, we are free. Yes, ain’t it good to be alive. Only you gotta cuss and spit and wear cowboy boots, otherwise people will think you’re a sissy–which also says a lot about the differences between Brits and Americans.

In these shows Pinter and Shepard are theoretically united by a single theme, anachronism. But it’s a theme so broad and vague it could be used to describe most of the plays currently running in Chicago: “Anachronisms,” says the press release, “is a collection of plays that examine characters out of their time and space.” Isn’t all theater–or, for that matter, all art–anachronistic by this definition? Yet somehow the two productions work. The Pinter seems a perfect introduction to the Shepard, and the Shepard a fine release for the pent-up feelings of angst Pinter inevitably inspires.

“Perfectly Pinter” begins with a short one-act from the early 80s, A Kind of Alaska. Inspired by Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, Pinter’s play in no way resembles the treacly Hollywood kitsch Penny Marshall made out of the same material. Instead he broods on the alienation and profound sense of displacement a woman feels waking up after 29 years in a coma induced by sleeping sickness–feelings revealed less by the text than by what isn’t said, by the pauses between bits of dialogue, and by Michelle Benes’s quick, bemused smile and expressive blue eyes in this performance.

The character’s isolation in this fairly recent Pinter play is very real: she’s a prisoner in her own body who describes being locked in a coma as “a vast series of halls” with lots of mirrored windows so that “glass reflects glass. For ever and ever.” Yet oddly enough this woman’s isolation feels much less terrifying than the sterile separateness of the stuffy, bourgeois British couple at the center of the other Pinter play on the bill, A Slight Ache. Written originally as a radio play and broadcast on BBC radio in 1959, this is a powerful hour-long work that begins as a send-up of claustrophobic lower-middle-class marriages–Edward and Flora engage in some of the most mindless conversation this side of the breakfast dialogues in Pinter’s The Birthday Party–but becomes a meditation on the human tendency to project our deepest fears and hopes onto others. In this case it’s a poor, silent match seller who’s invited into Edward and Flora’s home. Without saying a word, or even moving a muscle, he seduces Flora, who removes his dirt-encrusted shirt and runs her hands over his passive, bare chest, and defeats Edward, who tries to get the best of the stranger verbally and is instead bested himself.

A Slight Ache is pure, classic Pinter at his earliest and most vicious. And it’s a pleasure to see it performed so flawlessly in Patricia Acerra’s staging. Joseph Lutz is every inch the hollow suburban man, all puffed-up propriety and no balls, that Pinter meant Edward to be. And Maggie Speer’s Flora is the perfect passive-aggressive helpmate to this neutered male, a virago in mousy clothes.

What’s most impressive about Acerra’s cast (and Kerstin Broockmann’s in A Kind of Alaska) is how gracefully these non-Equity actors negotiate Pinter’s difficult dialogue, reading the lines with just enough edge to make us sense his subtext but never hitting us over the head with it. I’ve seen so many indifferent performances of Pinter in Chicago’s non-Equity theaterland that I’ve despaired of ever finding a cast who could perform with the subtlety and care needed to make the playwright soar. And when Pinter soars you feel it, like a slight existential ache in the pit of your stomach.

The ancient Greeks used to top off their daylong tragedy marathons with a comedy–something light to leaven the sorrow and pity inspired by the sight of so many noble families ruined by the gods or Fates or whatever. The pair of Shepard plays that end Anachronisms have the same effect, though neither is strictly speaking a comedy.

Killer’s Head, which begins “Late-Night Shepard,” is a tense little monologue delivered by a murderer strapped into an electric chair. Nothing he says has anything to do with the crime for which he’s being executed, however. Instead he delivers a long soliloquy on the art of raising horses, discussing in obsessive detail the best kind of bit to use, the perfect state for pasturing, even the preferred truck for hauling horses to and from shows. But we see the killer behind the words nonetheless, in the way Reid Coker spits out his lines like a feral animal, as if he were determined to emote every watt of anger the other actors had repressed in the two Pinter plays.

Killer’s Head is followed by a longer, much sillier play. The Unseen Hand is Shepard’s foray into sci-fi, which he combines with his favorite milieu: the world of cowboys in the west. The intensely trippy story concerns a 120-year-old cowboy named Blue, the only surviving member of a Jesse James-like gang gunned down in the late 1800s. He joins forces with an escaped alien slave named Willie who wants to free his alien-slave cohorts on another planet. To do this Willie must resurrect Blue’s brothers Cisco and Sycamore, which they do in short order, only–well, actually to summarize the whole of this one-act is ridiculous. All you really need to know is that Shepard packs it with enough action for two full-length plays. Guns are fired, brothers wrestle, and a pint-size alien writhes and curses under the power of the unseen hand, an occult power that keeps him from rising up against his masters.

Even in an uncertain production this play would probably be diverting. But performed by an ensemble that knows the difference between creating larger-than-life characters and going completely over the top–Leslie Zang is particularly fine as the chirpy-voiced Willie–The Unseen Hand is a satisfying ending to a long but full evening of well-conceived, well-performed theater.