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Between the Words We Speak

APT tackles Harold Pinter

Jun. 3, 2009
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Playwright Harold Pinter never felt the need to explain his plays, which has led to multiple popular and critical interpretations and debates about works like The Homecoming and Betrayal. The Milwaukee Rep's Laura Gordon, who will tackle Pinter for the first time next month in her American Players Theatre directorial debut of Pinter's Old Times, expects to add to the play's growing canon of controversy and uncertainty.

"I am drawn to plays that I have not a clue how to do," says Gordon, a member of the Rep's acting company for the past 16 years. "That's a challenge for me, because I try to figure it all out before I begin. But I have found that some of my best experiences have come when I am not fully prepared and open to the moment."

Gordon's moment with Pinter, who died this past Christmas Eve, will come July 11, when Old Times helps inaugurate the opening weekend of the Touchstone Theatre, APT's brand-new facility located down the hill from APT's outdoor amphitheater on its Spring Green campus.

The 200-seat Touchstone is APT's first permanent indoor theater, Old Times its first voyage into Pinter's psyche; this also marks the first time Gordon will direct her husband, APT company member Jonathan Smoots, as part of the three-person cast. In many ways, Old Times helps open a new period in APT's development, according to Brenda DeVita, the company's associate artistic director.

"Pinter is the introduction to what more contemporary poets offer us in our quest to uncover certain truths," DeVita says. "He uses language to describe the very failure of language's ability to express ourselves. Pinter believed we live between the words we speak."

Gordon agrees, noting the difficulty of directing the silences, pauses and false starts that characterize the unfolding drama in all of Pinter's plays. What's more, the play's thesis-that a married couple being visited 20 years later by the wife's college roommate all share very different memories of the past-is anything but reminiscence, she says.

"Pinter said 'It happens; it all happens' when describing his play," Gordon explains. "Even though they talk about the past, the drama occurs very much in the moment. The stakes are very high for these people."

Part of the pleasure of the play comes through Pinter's unique use of language, Gordon says. The playwright wraps poetry with colloquialisms, creating dialogue characterized by phrases both familiar and foreign, drawing the audience in while keeping them well at arm's length, much like conversations in real life.

Understanding the meanings woven within that dialogue will become part of the critical collaborative process it is the director's role to cultivate. While this may be Gordon's APT debut, she has been directing plays for the Milwaukee Rep, the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks for the past five years. For Old Times, she will draw heavily on the interpretations of actors Smoots, Tracy Michelle Arnold and Carey Cannon for her meanings.

"I've never directed Jonathan before," she says of her husband and fellow actor/director. "He first directed me in a Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival production of AMidsummer Night's Dream. That's how we met."

However, Pinter offers none of the light fare of one of Shakespeare's most famous comedies, drawing his own type of poetry out of the contradictions, avoidances, repetitions and silences of everyday life. Directing the spaces between the lines will be the "in the moment" challenge that Gordon both relishes and fears, she says. The training, intellectual depth and skills of her cast will help the production succeed.

"Pinter breaks a lot of theatrical conventions and we will have to walk a fine line in leaving the play open to as many interpretations as possible," Gordon says. "We need to catch the cast in the moment and play this as honestly, as brutally and as beautifully as possible.

"Pinter takes his characters on a psychological and emotional journey, and it's exhausting for the performers," she adds.

Old Times also is a perfect stepping-off point for APT's new season and its next dramatic iteration. Amid an economy that is driving local and national performing arts companies out of business, the Spring Green troupe is not only surviving, but thriving with a new financial and dramatic lease on life, to which Harold Pinter will make a distinct contribution.

"I think this will be a great play for the long car rides home and the inevitable discussions and debates that ensue," Gordon says.

Comment on this article at ExpressMilwaukee.com.


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