BWW Reviews: THE HOMECOMING, defunkt Company Delivers Tension and Cold Calculation to Pinter's London Flat
I got confused trying to find this place. The Back Door Theater (home to defunkt company) is deep in Portland's east side, down Hawthorne, and tucked away in the back of a coffee shop, and I do mean tucked away. There's no signage anywhere, you just have to hope the establishment you're walking into at the intersection of 43rd is the correct one, then walk through to the back like you suddenly needed the restroom and voila – you emerge into a small, but fully furnished, Portland theater. For me it was just as exciting as walking into any of the big rooms, but for different reasons. In the big rooms you know they've got the funding, access to the talent, and you know you're about to witness something great. Witness, though, is the operative word. As in – 'distant from' and 'observing of'. Stepping through the three rows of chairs in the confined space of the Back Door Theater (having just found your way whether through miracle or use of the Marauder's Map), one feels like they are stepping into something. This is intimate theater, theater you are invited to be a part of. Not literally, thankfully. Not with Pinter's THE HOMECOMING. Portlanders are rubbish at audience participation, anyway.
I'd like you to think of this play as a boxing match. However, this is not a fight carried out with physicality, but with words, with implied meaning, and with silence. How wonderful, since the youngest character is – in fact – a boxer, and how deliciously ironic that he is – in fact – the worst at this implied style of boxing. Words are our weapons here and words – equally – our weapons of defense. This is the nature of THE HOMECOMING, Harold Pinter's legendary 'family drama'. Every person on stage is pitted against each other at all times. Every line and every silence is a deliberate attempt at gaining the higher ground, the advantage, over any other singular member of the family. This battle, this boxing match, is the plot. The shifts of power, the shifts of identity, the shifts of personal possession are the drama and the outcome.
It has always been hugely interesting to me that the time in which Pinter was writing roughly paralleled the time in which Samuel Beckett was popular (approximately only a ten year difference). I say this because Waiting for Godot, like THE HOMECOMING, was a play that critics initially found concerning due to its lack of linear narrative structure. Both plays have no conventional story arc. Yet where Beckett's writing touts his iconic Absurdist style of robbing all words of their meaning until we as an audience realize that words are rapidly decaying, shoddy tools that prove all language and communication futile (and if language itself has no meaning, then who are we that define ourselves by language but similarly empty vessels?), Pinter alternatively loads so much gravitas and meaning and attack into each word that the air becomes thick with tension and one cannot see any sort of language connection as genuine. Two sides of the same coin, it would appear.
But now on to the play! The simple narrative is that Teddy and his wife Ruth have returned to London to visit Teddy's family – an all-male household of Teddy's father, uncle, and two brothers. Much of the competition that arises between the characters stems from the insertion of a female presence into a household that for so long had gone without, a dynamic that dramatically shifts the identity and disposition of nearly every character by the end of the play. The role of the woman (both of Ruth and she who is missing) seems to be limited to 'wife', 'mother', and 'sex object', characteristically archetypal roles for women in all media right through the 1960s, when this play was written. Pinter embraces that lack of robustness in character by playing up the deliberate shifts in the three roles that Ruth goes through in the second act. By the end, (SPOILER) with Ruth electing to stay in London while Teddy returns to America, the all-male household in London is in possession of the 'wife/mother/sex object' they were missing, while Teddy's household has lost that female presence.
The performance by defunkt was true to the most fundamental elements of Pinter's play: a very apparent two-act structure, deliberate and prolonged silences, and tension in every word. The main element of the performance to pay attention to, however, is that idea of the 'boxing match' that takes us back to the beginning. All the actors did a very fine job in emphasizing the coldness towards each other, in portraying every character relationship like two animals circling each other and growling, always looking for the upper hand. I was particularly impressed with the viciousness that Ruth (played by Grace Carter) seemed to inhabit within her from the moment she walked in the door to the flat. However, this very same element of cold repression proved - in a small way - to be the performance's undoing.
Most of the performances were flat, with the exception of several key speeches made by Max (played by Blaine Palmer). It is difficult to balance a sense of stand-offishness and silence with maintaining energy throughout a performance, but unfortunately during several moments in which the atmosphere was meant to be tense and gripping, the entire room just felt dead. The audience shuffled a bit, looked at programs. I think why I mention this is because I feel like bringing that consistent level of energy to the stage is infinitely more important when dealing with a play that has no conventional story arc. There is no narrative to fall back on, the drama of the boxing match is either there or you've lost everyone. And these actors are capable of bringing that energy, of that I have no doubt. However, in this performance, the gears were visibly turning, and when the actors are thinking and not feeling, a majority of the energy in a performance is lost.
That was my one issue. The rest of the night is a treat in terms of entering the theater, being a part of an intimate stage setting, experiencing a wonderful play put on by wonderful Portland theater people, and having a good night out. If you haven't yet seen a performance of Harold Pinter's THE HOMECOMING, defunkt company's valiant rendition is a very fine place to start.
THE HOMECOMING plays at the Back Door Theater through November 17th.
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Photo Credit to Lori Sue Hoffman