BWW Review: Scena Theatre's PINTER REP Returns to the Great Dissident Poet with Three Classics & an American Premiere
Dark times often call for dark plays; what is especially heartbreaking is the way darkness has of repeating itself in different languages, in different parts of the world. Especially our own.
Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter was one of the most eloquent witnesses of our times, to the inhumanity we routinely inflict on each other. The ease with which we gloss over our cruelty with words is evidence that language is as deadly a weapon as any in our arsenal, and he knew it.
Are his plays easy to watch? Not really; but he challenges us to think about what we-and our elected political leadership-inflict without so much as a thought, but always with a word or two. Pinter's appeals to conscience are unforgettable, and vitally important.
Scena Theatre's artistic director, Robert McNamara, offers us a fresh look at some of Pinter's sparsely-written, tightly-plotted dramas; the first three, One for the Road, Mountain Language, and The New World Order, were written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the horrific genocidal mania it unleashed in the former Yugoslavia-to name but one place where this impulse coursed through cynical nationalistic veins. Sparsely furnished by John D. Antone, brutally lit by Jonathan Alexander, and punctuated by music selected by Denise Rose, it's an unvarnished look at our condition.
One for the Road offers Nicolas (Chris Henley), a neatly-dressed, torturer with an astonishing likeness to Mike Pence, who (unlike Pence, presumably) downs shots of whiskey as he interrogates a family, one by one, over their son's spontaneous protest-an act that results in the annihilation of them all, spiritually and physically. Mountain Language, addresses the not-unrelated obsession with wiping out any trace of 'alien' cultures by placing prisoners in a situation where they cannot use their mother tongue - leaving said mother (Karin Rosnizeck) movingly incapable of speech. Meanwhile, The New World Order shows a torture chamber where the language of torture is under interrogation too, as an official (Greg Ongao) suffers correction in the fine art of insulting one's prey.
The fourth and final piece should raise eyebrows in many ways - The Pres and an Officer was found written on a notepad after Pinter's death in 2008. Intended as yet another expression of his contempt for the George W. Bush administration, it is in some ways a blessing that Pinter didn't live to see the current occupant of the White House. As his widow Antonia Fraser put it, when she published the play not long ago, it gives a resounding answer to the question people often ask her - what would Pinter have thought of Trump?
None other than McNamara himself, with his usual directorial bravado, embodies the blustering, ignorant Commander in Chief of The Pres and an Officer, dropping nukes hither and yon while a horrified-but largely mute-officer looks on and tries in vain to prevent more senseless carnage. Think of it as a satyr play, a comic sketch to round out the three tragedies preceding it (the Ancient Greeks could relate).
One of the lessons learned from this short evening of plays is how easily the tortured and torturer can switch places - with little more than a brief interlude and a shifting of chairs. The ensemble change with ease from playing victims one moment to victimizers the next. One perhaps unintended result is the realization that Pinter is far more attentive to male cruelty-the women are universally cast here as helpless, a situation that does not always pertain to the genocides of our day (or any day for that matter). Irina Koval, for example, is luminous as the victim Gila in One for the Road - but she would be no less persuasive were she to take on the role of the hard-drinking officer Nicolas. Scena has distinguished itself for years with its gender-reversed productions of classic plays, and I for one would love to see them turn the tables on Pinter.
Production photo: (L to R): Irina Koval (Gila) and Christopher Henley (Nicolas). Photo courtesy of Jae Yi Photography.
Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
Pinter Rep runs in repertory with Beckett Trio, April 8 - May 5 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993 or online at: https://atlasarts.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0S0H00000KUVTtUAP .