Feral Theatre

at A Red Orchid Theatre


Northlight Theatre

It’s a shame Harold Pinter is often recognized less for his words than for the spaces he leaves between them. With all the copycats churning out pause-laden domestic dramas, one almost forgets there’s more to Pinter than people saying “Mmmm” and “Ahhh” and “Quite right” to each other.

In essence Pinter created a new theatrical language in which silence could speak as loudly as words, with the audience inserting what he chose to leave out. But these silences also allow us to weigh the importance of every word his characters utter and to examine the layers of meaning in what may at first appear to be a simple word or phrase.

Take the title of his 1978 masterpiece Betrayal, which at first seems easy to grasp. The further one delves into it, the more complex it becomes. Since we’re dealing with the issue of domestic infidelity in a story of a woman’s affair with her husband’s best friend, we might assume the title refers to the woman and her lover deceiving her husband. But Pinter did not title his play Deceit. “Betrayal” refers not only to a deception but also to a secret disclosure, which could make it a veiled reference to Pinter’s own highly publicized marital transgressions with Lady Antonia Fraser. Betrayal can also imply an unintended revelation or a treacherous infidelity. As Pinter’s characters betray each other, they also betray their own emotions. What’s amazing about the play is that it encompasses every possible definition one might dream up for the word.

This sort of mischievous wordplay has been a staple of Pinter’s from his earliest and most oblique works, such as The Dwarfs, to his most recent and accessible plays, such as Betrayal. In The Dwarfs Pinter seemed most concerned with separating words from their meanings and stretching them to their most abstract, so that the true obfuscating nature of language might be revealed. When he got around to Betrayal, about 20 years later, he was no longer interested in being obscure; he pared down his language to its most basic form and let the actors and audiences reconstruct the confusions he didn’t include–creating the same dizzying effect without all the linguistic fuss.

In a rare treat, Chicago audiences can now examine Pinter’s progression from abstract enfant terrible (Feral Theatre’s jarringly exquisite The Dwarfs) to master of contemporary theater (Northlight Theatre’s hauntingly beautiful Betrayal). Neither production should be missed.

Based on an early-50s experimental novel Pinter didn’t publish until 1990, The Dwarfs is a maddeningly perplexing one-act: it’s as if a play has been accidentally fed into a paper shredder and then reassembled by a clever ape. This loosely constructed series of scenes depicts the peculiar relationship between three London chums, and Pinter allowed in a 1961 interview that it “may have been completely incomprehensible to the audience.” Nevertheless, in its treatment of the wittily obsessive Len, the humorless thespian Mark, and the world-weary realist Pete, The Dwarfs achieves moments of rare grace, humor, and profundity.

To help clarify this difficult play Feral Theatre member Tim O’Shea has added scenes from Pinter’s novel The Dwarfs and has reintroduced the character of Virginia, Pete’s platonic lover who betrays his trust by carrying on an affair with Mark. Adding material that helps explain the motivations of Pinter’s characters is a tricky business, because the more you explicate the play the farther you stray from Pinter’s abstruse intentions.

Yet O’Shea’s adaptation fares remarkably well, introducing the viewer to many elucidating passages while maintaining the herky-jerky quality of the original. The addition of empty would-be love scenes between Pete and Virginia and a quietly erotic exchange between Virginia and Mark give the play an increased tension. And in the new context Len’s raving monologues about dwarfs and his perceptions of time and space are both more humorous and compelling. When he observes that “the rooms we live in open and shut. . . . They change their shape at their own will. I wouldn’t grumble if only they would keep to some consistency. But, they don’t,” we’re aware, in a way we weren’t in the original, of the chaotic nature of the world Pinter perceives and of the insufficiency of buildings and languages to maintain an illusion of order.

Feral’s production is helped immeasurably by brilliant performances from a highly talented quartet of actors and by a superb set designed by Freya Wellin and Brian Jude Leahy that seems to change shape at will. Self-assured directors O’Shea and Brian Posen seem to pounce on this script and almost tear meaning from it. Anastasia Basil as Virginia delivers a complex, vulnerable performance, and O’Shea as Len a rapid-fire, hilarious one. Even Ken Frandson’s lighting design deserves commendation for its ability to transform Red Orchid’s intimate space from a spare London apartment in daylight to a dim bedroom in the hazy blue glow of moonlight.

Northlight Theatre’s production of Betrayal is a textbook example of a faithful adaptation, and in this classic play the audience can view Pinter’s talent reaching its pinnacle. Not self-consciously bizarre or disorienting like many of his excellent works of the 60s, this play is not concerned with confusing or tricking the audience with gimmickry. Rather, in telling its story of the destruction of a marriage and a friendship in reverse order, it lays all of its secrets bare at the beginning and then goes about revealing the methods each character uses to conceal everything we already know. Here Pinter leaves all the tools of his art out in the open for everyone to see, allowing the audience to understand his characters’ games of betrayal. And here the audience can switch places with the characters of Pinter’s previous dramas; now we’re aware of every deception, and it’s the characters who must navigate the cumbersome rituals of language and silence. It is in this brilliant reversal that Pinter achieved mastery over his style, though having reached this apex, he hasn’t bothered to pen much of anything worthwhile since.

The 90-minute Betrayal is a work of startling depth, in which every line of dialogue and every silence is full of significance. From the beginning moments, where we see a sadly uninvolved drink between two former lovers who’ve drifted apart, until the final image, when we see the naively hopeful pair, each reaching for the other’s hand, this is a grimly cynical view of the consequences of passion and deceit, but it is also filled with humor and dramatic irony.

It would be difficult to conceive of any production approaching the magnificent film version of this play starring Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons, and Patricia Hodge, but Northlight Theatre, under Russell Vandenbroucke’s direction, manages to step outside that daunting shadow. If this spare, yet deeply affecting production doesn’t equal the film, it does manage to stand on its own, allowing the beauty of the play to shine.

In the role of Robert, the successful publisher betrayed by his wife and best friend, David Darlow fares slightly better than his counterparts Kristine Thatcher and Kevin Gudahl, if only because his face is more enigmatic than theirs–which allows the audience to believe that more is going on inside his head when he’s silent. The only downside of this excellently realized production is Mary Griswold’s beautifully rendered cyclorama of blue sky and clouds, which seems intended to lend a note of universality and timelessness to Pinter’s play. It’s not only unnecessary, but at times distracting.