Imago’s ‘The Caretaker’ finds the nuance in ‘Pinteresque’

Jerry Mouawad and a crack cast at Imago find the heart in Pinter

Allen Nause and Jeffrey Gilpin in 'The Caretaker'/Photo Jerry Mouawad

Allen Nause and Jeffrey Gilpin in ‘The Caretaker’/Photo Jerry Mouawad

I started to take notes as I waited for Davies and Aston to make it down the hall and enter the particularly shabby and cluttered room in which Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker takes place at Imago Theatre. I even formulated a few descriptions in my mind when Allen Nause (as the tramp Davies) and Jacob Coleman (as Aston, who has taken Davies in off the street) exchanged their first words. But then I folded up my little notebook, clicked my pen closed, and just watched. I don’t do this very often.

Nause was babbling on, a brook of gratitude flowing smoothly (for the moment) over a rocky bed of ego, fear, and hopelessness. Coleman barely responded, verbally at least, though when Davies points out the state of his shoes, Aston rummages around the room and then offers him a pair of better ones. But no, barely looking at them, Coleman decides they don’t fit. Right there, the political/psychological games that Pinter exposes so tellingly begin.

From a particular philosophical perch, the world is essentially comic, even the worst of it, maybe especially the worst of it, because how could we expect the worst to be any better? Of course things are going to turn out badly for such limited, rotten creatures as ourselves. Now, for some this observation can lead to the bleakest sort of religious crisis and then to some sort of abject redemption, but in the 20th century, when Harold Pinter wrote The Caretaker (1960), it often led to the bitter comedy of the Absurdists.

Pinter’s comedy is astringent enough to join that club, and The Caretaker is genuinely funny at times, though we laugh with reservation. This moment’s merriment will not last, and misery hides in its shadows. But also waiting alongside the misery? Some deeply human moments, in both the characters and Pinter, that redeem us from the dimness of our contradictory desires.

Director Jerry Mouawad doesn’t shy away from these moments, from these qualities in Pinter and The Caretaker. He allows them to emerge in the context of the play, of the lives of the characters together. This willingness to play the cracks in Pinter’s otherwise dark tragi-comedies showed up in December’s production of Pinter’s The Lover, which I admired in several ways, and in The Caretaker the modulation is even more subtle and more effective. Mouawad’s Pinter has an energy and a variety that most productions fail to deliver, and that’s because Mouawad rightly recovers the heart of the plays, not just their hopelessness.

Allen Nause and Jacob Coleman in 'The Caretaker'/Photo Jerry Mouawad

Allen Nause and Jacob Coleman in ‘The Caretaker’/Photo Jerry Mouawad

Let’s see: Where were we? Davies and Aston have started uneasy habitation of Aston’s single room in a derelict building, Davies on babble constantly and Aston mostly silent and obsessive about how he folds his coat after going out or how he works on a plug with his screwdriver, a task that apparently has no end. We learn a little about Davies, though mostly from observation, not the suspect information he give us about official papers in a nearby town, his problems at his most recent place of employment, or anything else. He couldn’t be more shabby, and we believe Aston when he says, finally, that Davies smells. How could those particular trousers and underclothes NOT stink to the high heavens?

By this time, Aston has begun to realize that Davies, his guest, really isn’t…what? A good fit? That would be euphemistic. But Davies has a new ally, Aston’s younger brother Mick, or thinks he might at least. Most of the time, though, Mick, who is fast-talking, sharp, bigger and more colorful than life, is more a torturer of Davies than an ally. Then again, he does spin a fantasy remodel of the decrepit digs, and enlists Davies in the project, promising some modest remuneration for Davies’ help.

But by this time in the play, we know that we’re not about to encounter a scene in which new opulent countertops are installed in a shiny new kitchen.

Davies is the pivot of the play, contesting with Aston for dominance in their cluttered room in one scene, then trying to wriggle out of the traps that Mick sets up for him in the next. Nause keeps him whole through both sorts of scenes, pushing his desire for power with Aston and his fear with Davies, but keeping him recognizable in both the realistic theater of the first and the Absurdist theater of the second. I like this portrayal. Is Davies a self-confident character down on his luck and looking for the big chance? I don’t think so. He’s barely visible, a little fellow who lives on the remotest margins of the city, conniving and scraping for any scrap that comes his way, brandishing a little pocket knife and a quick temper to protect himself, though neither is threatening in the least. That’s why he and Aston, another marginal character, meet and are thrown together, and when he senses Aston’s weakness, he seeks to overthrow his benefactor.

When you become an adjective—Pinteresque—that’s a sign of great respect but also a sign that in the reduction of yourself to a single word, a lot is going to get lost. With Pinter, that is often the human heart, as irregularly as it may beat.

In The Caretaker the most obvious moment of this (and one never underplayed, I suspect) is Aston’s long monologue that reveals how he ended up in the dumpiest of rooms, surrounded by projects he’ll never complete. Is there an earlier or a better condemnation of electroshock therapy in theater? I don’t think so. Coleman delivers it in the quiet, deliberate way that Aston talks, allowing the story, his autobiography, to build. It’s a wrenching several minutes, and one that someone who couldn’t still manage outrage at the things that humans do to each other wouldn’t write. Strange how outrage and humanity are linked sometimes.

The other location for the heart I’m talking about in this production is the least likely, Gilpin’s Mick, who in some ways is the most grotesque character in the production, a tormenter of lesser beings. But watch Gilpin closely, as you must because he gives you no choice, and the little human hiccups start to accumulate, maybe just in moments of indecision at first, but then in his steadfast support of his brother Aston. Their parting at the end of the play, so hesitant with so much left unsaid, is heartbreaking. And yes, I think that’s “Pinteresque,” too.

Allen Nause and Jeffrey Gilpin in 'The Caretaker'/Photo Jerry Mouawad

Allen Nause and Jeffrey Gilpin in ‘The Caretaker’/Photo Jerry Mouawad

All I’m really arguing is that The Caretaker has possibilities, first, and then that Mouawad and his cast showed some of them to us. This reading of the play is creative and exciting, nano-second to nano-second. I can see Nause trembling and snarling and trembling again as I type. Coleman, hollowly clinging to the person he was before the hallucinations and the electroshock, and then seeking his way back. Gilpin, exploding at Davies and ultimately retreating from his brother.

These characters quiver in front of us, but maybe that’s the way a nihilist would see them, as subatomic particles, neither here nor there. And that’s not right. They are actually here, and they are testifying that things just aren’t quite right. Not nearly right.

Portland right now is awash in fine theater. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many shows open to such good notices and enthusiasm. Just click the THEATER button on top of this review and see for yourself. It’s not just Portland, either: Marty Hughley’s report of the four new plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t reveal a clunker in the bunch.

I hardly know what to make of this. Maybe just suggest that we all take in as much as possible? But down deep I think something else good is going on, something connected to the strength of this cast. Even as productions are opening all around the city, The Caretaker boasted Portland’ most famous theater artist (Nause) working with a founding member of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (Coleman, brilliant in that company’s R3) and Gilpin (who starred in The Lover with Mouawad among many other major roles in town). But that’s a subject for another day.


The Caretaker continues through March 23, at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave.

Robert Shaw played Aston in the 1964 film version of The Caretaker. Here’s his monologue with Donald Pleasance as Davies (Alan Bates played Mick).

One Response.

  1. Cynthia Kirk says:

    Thanks, Barry, for the review. We saw The Lover and look forward to seeing this production next week. I appreciate you posting the video, too; it’s mind-bending that Robert Shaw is the same actor who had the leads in Jaws.

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