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At a time when authoritarianism, and a corresponding skepticism of liberal democracy seems to be on the rise internationally, it seems as timely as ever to revisit the more overtly political works of Harold Pinter, four of which were late additions to Scena Theatre’s current season.
The evening, directed by Robert McNamara, opens with the longest (and dramatically strongest) of the one acts, 1984’s “One for the Road.” In an undisclosed location, Nicolas (Christopher Henley), a loquacious official with an unnamed fascist state’s security services detains a family of three: Victor (Robert Sheire), Gila (Irina Koval), and their seven year old son, Nikky (Cecilia Smith). Interrogating each of them in turn, his objective is not to gain any information, but to impress upon them his power, their helplessness, and their inability to protect themselves or each other. He emphasizes his closeness with “the man who runs this country” and describes himself as serving God. Literally drunk on power, Nicolas downs shot after shot of whiskey during his interview with Victor. Henley’s performance is masterful, always conveying the underlying threat that he has total impunity were he to lose control and decide to inflict the same torture on-stage that his underlings are implied to have inflicted off-stage. There’s even mention of a brothel on the sixth floor. For Pinter, political violence cannot exist without sexual violence.
1988’s “Mountain Language” also takes place in an unnamed country, in which soldiers have taken away most of the men of “the Mountain People” and informed the women (Koval and Karin Rosnizeck) that their language has been forbidden. They are ordered to communicate in the language spoken in the capital; some have speculated that Pinter meant it to be about Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds, though one soldier’s exclamation of “Jesus Christ!” puts the kibosh on that interpretation. Some menacing absurdist comedy exists, but Pinter never seems to develop it beyond a few vignettes.
In 1991’s “New World Order,” Pinter revisits the subject of torture. In this case, an unnamed man (Henley) is blindfolded and bound in a chair in the company of two government operatives, Des (Sheire) and Lionel (Greg Onago). The focus is less on the cruelty visited upon the prisoner and more on what Des and Lionel think of their jobs. They are professionals, and while they might torture a few people here and there, there’s nothing personal about it: They believe they are “making the world safe for democracy.” They playfully debate whether their prisoner is a peasant, a theologian, or a “peasant theologian,” or whether one should be logically consistent with their vulgarity. The casual jocularity is chilling, but in the roughly 10-minute run time, Pinter doesn’t distinguish Des and Lionel sufficiently for the actors to play them as more than the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of extraordinary rendition. Though the title’s allusion to George H.W. Bush may strike some as a bit too particular, the question it poses is apt: How much covert, morally unsavory, action can a democracy tolerate?
Receiving its U.S. premiere is 2008’s “The Pres and an Officer,” a darkly satirical two-hander. The last known Pinter play, it was found among his papers after his death. An American president, probably intended to be George W. Bush, but played with Trumpian intonations and hand gestures by Robert McNamara, orders in a moment of personal pique, and much to the shock of the officer who stands at his side (Henley), a nuclear strike. Misunderstandings ensue.
Despite the lack of on-stage violence, the degree of menace in Pinter’s dialogue and in the actors’ gestures is sufficiently harsh that at least one audience member slipped out before the final scene. But few other Anglophone dramatists have so portrayed how regimes use language to destroy the individual’s potential for dissent. It’s not light entertainment, and like the 12-tone chamber music and punk rock that sound designer Denise Rose uses for transitions, not for everyone. Nevertheless, it’s vital.
The lights slowly rise, just enough to see two nearly identical men, their long white hair obscuring the eyes on their craggy faces. One (Buck O’Leary), seated in profile, begins to read a ghost story in which a man, mourning the loss of his beloved, becomes a recluse on Paris’ Isle of Swans. His counterpart (Kim Curtis) faces the audience, listening, occasionally wrapping his hand upon the table on the table, causing the reader to repeat a passage. “Ohio Impromptu” was written in 1980 for an academic symposium celebrating Beckett’s 75th birthday. Superficially, it seems a replay of 1958’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” but whereas the earlier play is filled with specific biographical details about its protagonist, this miniature is far more enigmatic. What is the relationship between the seeming doppelgängers? Between reader, listener, the story, and its protagonist? How is reading from a fixed text impromptu? The more one questions, the more one questions one’s own assumptions.
In “Come and Go,” three women sit on a bench, identically dressed but for their colors—Vi (Jen Bevarelli) wears red, Flo (Ellie Nicoll), purple, and Ru (Lewshá-Camille Simboura), green. They have been friends since childhood. Each in turn rises, glides off into the darkness, and returns, while one remaining friend whispers some gossip to the other about their absent partner. Every sound and gesture is articulated slowly with intense deliberation, stretching out this, the shortest of Beckett’s scripts. The careful movements require absolute concentration from the actors, who are required to resist both gravity and inertia, even in stillness, and the effect is mesmerizing, drawing the audience in to its repeated motifs and variations. Where once the three were inseparable, secrets now exist between the three that the audience can only guess. Their lives may be in danger of unraveling by scandal, misfortune, or death, yet still they are together and the dynamics of their friendship are ever more complex. Like a fractal pattern, or a Celtic knot, “Come and Go”’s beauty is simultaneously intricate and simple.
Beckett dedicated “Catastrophe” to the Czech playwright Václav Havel in 1982, at a time when the Charter 77 co-founder and future president was being held as a political prisoner by Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. The director (O’Leary) sits in an armchair wearing an ushanka — a Russian fur cap — with a communist emblem as he considers his protagonist (Curtis), a shivering figure standing on a plinth. He orders his assistant (Bevarelli) to make adjustments in order to shape the protagonist into the model citizen that the regime wants: a person unable to clench a fist or look his masters in the eye. Even the coat and hat that give him some modicum of dignity and comfort from the cold are taken from him. Some may see an element of self-parody given Beckett’s own reputation for exerting control over productions. The director, unlike the protagonist, may take some small pleasure in a cigar that his assistant must constantly relight. No matter how repressed and sublimated, desire is reserved for the rulers. In this staging, the evening’s director, McNamara follows Beckett’s lead: Bevarelli’s assistant wears a black party dress under her lab coat, but the occasional purring tone, and sultry pose she holds as she leans over the director to light his cigar is affected, restrained and codified by what serves the regime.
In design sensibilities, Scena Theatre has invested far more effort into the Beckett Trio than their concurrently running bill of Pinter plays, particularly Mei Chen’s costume designs for “Come and Go,” in which the women wear elegant dresses, satin opera gloves, and decorative hats of floral bows and gauze that conceal the eyes for all but a brief profile view. Lighting designer Jonathan Alexander artfully adjusts light and shadow so as to reveal the very details of faces and forms at the most precise moment.
So much contemporary theater revolves around relatable narratives and representation of the audience’s reality. It’s important and refreshing to see artists put such care into the presentation of artful mystery.
To May 5 at 1333 H Street NE. $25–$35. (202) 399-7993. scenatheatre.org.