Feral Theater

at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

Less than a year old, the Feral Theater has already carved out a niche for itself as a company that produces minor works by major playwrights. Their first production was Sam Shepard’s 4-H Club. This pointless, plotless fragment masquerading as a one-act hardly seems worth staging, but Feral Theater’s cast performed it with so much energy, commitment, and sheer playfulness that they almost overcame the work’s inherent weaknesses.

Two of the three actors from that production, Brian Jude Leahy and Mark Talley, are back in the company’s second production. This time the work they’re tackling is Harold Pinter’s significantly more interesting one-act The Dwarfs. And the results are much more satisfying.

Based on a novel Pinter had abandoned in the 50s, when he turned his attention to writing plays, The Dwarfs was first performed on BBC radio at the tail end of 1960, a year of incredible success for Pinter: it saw the London premieres of The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter, the first American productions of The Room and The Birthday Party, and the publication of Pinter’s first collection of plays.

Next to these considerable accomplishments, The Dwarfs casts a tiny shadow. Still, the one-act is noteworthy for the way Pinter uses it to push to its farthest extreme his theory of language as avoidance–“a violent, sly, anguished, or mocking smokescreen.” Not only do the characters in The Dwarfs indulge in Pinter’s trademark laconic dialogue–at once witty and vaguely hostile, with much more unsaid than said–but Pinter uses the very structure of the play to carry on a similarly laconic conversation with his audience. He intentionally withholds key narrative information, daring us to take the meager scraps he gives us–scenes full of repetitious dialogue and rambling, incoherent monologues–and find the meaning behind them.

We never find out, for example, why Len is talking about seeing dwarfs around town. Is he hallucinating? Making a point about his fellow Londoners? Or just trying to provoke his more literal-minded friends? Nor do we know for sure whether Len, Mark, and Pete are lovers, chums, or just flat-mates. Such uncertainties are a hallmark of Pinter’s work, but even by Pinter’s standards The Dwarfs is infuriatingly vague. Usually a story emerges, though it may be sketchy. But not in The Dwarfs. Using a technique pinched by performance artists in the 80s, Pinter just presents us with scene after disconnected scene, until after 40 minutes or so the play ends.

It goes without saying that performing such a slippery script is fraught with difficulties. Director Tom Zanarini and his cast have come as close to creating a whole play out of this disjointed material as anyone can expect. These three actors perform Pinter’s spare dialogue wonderfully, proving themselves as adept at Pinter’s moments of comedy as at maintaining the air of hostility that suffuses his work. Tim O’Shea is particularly winning as the weasely Len, though he stumbles a bit on Pinter’s excessively long monologues–they may have worked fine on radio, but they die onstage.

The play ends as perhaps Pinter himself planned it to end, with a whimper and not a bang. Still, it’s interesting to see Pinter’s weltanschauung pushed to the limit, even if the world revealed is so cold and emotionally distant that it makes one yearn for the jovial sadism of The Birthday Party or the sorrowful silence of A Slight Ache.