harold pinter

‘The Homecoming’: Imago defines ‘Pinteresque’

One girl and a houseful of boys riding their ids to the edge, then trying to soft-shoe back into good graces

Let’s say you’ve decided to drop the word “Pinteresque” into cocktail conversation. What’s the right moment?

Well, it might work in place of “messed-” or “f*cked-up,” but only referring to people’s actions. No apparel, architecture, food or music—however grotesque—is sick enough to qualify. Only people are Pinteresque, and only in person, when they do or say the most shocking things possible.

So when do you bust out your new favorite word? At that record-skip moment when the party stops short because someone has completely lost control. “Well, that was Pinteresque,” you murmur to your date, as you and all the other sane guests tiptoe over the spilled punch, shattered glass, rutting couple, or dead man toward the door.

Ann Sorce and the fellas: trouble's a-brewin'. Photo: John Rudoff

Anne Sorce and the fellas: trouble’s a-brewin’. Photo: John Rudoff

It’s this immediacy, this focus on the present, that’s drawn Imago Theatre—otherwise best-known for goodhearted, all-ages commedia clowning in Frogz and Big Little Things—into Harold Pinter’s more tortured reality, performing three of the British playwright’s works in a recent stretch, and currently The Homecoming, which opened over the weekend and continues through November 10. “”If you look at Frogz, there’s no past, no future. There’s only the moment,” Imago artistic director Jerry Mouawad has explained to The Oregonian.

Only the moment? Well, certainly the moments in The Homecoming are overwhelmingly potent. When patriarch Max (Douglas Mitchell) pitches red-faced tirades, sputtering epithets (bitch and more) about his late wife, and lashing out physically against his sons, it’s jarring enough—but when, in a flash, he re-composes himself into a grandfatherly, cajoling host, offering tea and compliments (with a side of sleaze), it’s actually scarier. Did he just say that, or did we imagine it? If he can “turn” that quickly, how long a lull do we have till he “turns” again? Doubting one’s own senses is the heart of dramatic suspense, whether it’s in a haunted house from a horror movie, or a family home on the outskirts of London, haunted by horrible memories.

The Homecoming‘s present, however intense, is made possible by an implied awful past. And according to Pinter himself, “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.” The father, sons, and uncle who live together in The Homecoming drop frequent hints that incest, abuse, and infidelity are part of their shared past, and they’d have to be! How else could these characters possibly act so Pinteresque?!

Lenny (Jacob Coleman), a dapper scumbag, has locked his father Max in a permanent staredown, while his physically stronger but intellectually and emotionally softer brother Joey (Jim Vadala) struggles to speak, often shutting down and cowering in a corner. Their (gay? gigolo?) uncle Sam (Craig Rovere) acts breezy and cavalier, but when Max confronts him, he galvanizes into sudden steel.

The group’s behavior gets partially better, and ultimately worse, when two more characters are introduced: long-lost third brother Teddy (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin) and his wife, Ruth (Anne Sorce). A lady! Sam’s keen to make her comfortable, Joey’s instantly in love and Lenny in lust, and Max derides her as a filthy whore, then abruptly changes tack and welcomes her. Their reaction to their kinsman Teddy is far more blasé; after all, he’s just another man, and they’ve already overfilled that quota. Though their dialogue ends up probing some interesting philosophical dichotomies (UK versus US, academia versus working class), ultimately they drop these debates for the flesh-and-blood femininity in their midst.

Written in 1964, the year after the release of The Feminine Mystique, The Homecoming piles the odds against its sole female character even as it trains its full focus upon her. Ruth’s not merely under a lens here; she’s at the center of crosshairs. Anne Sorce, who may be the fiercest and most bewitching actress in Portland, remains equally beautiful and hard throughout this five-on-one territorial pissing match. Her performance earns a “Hot damn!”—but saying any more would give away the game.

The Homecoming, often lumped with other “comedies of menace,” is so powerfully sinister that writing it apparently blew Pinter’s own fuse. After The Homecoming, he announced he was “tired of menace,” and penned the more poetic Landscape and Silence. Also, according to Imago’s playbill notes, “Pinter himself disliked the term [Pinteresque] and found it meaningless”—which may seem messed-up, but probably explains his characters’ impulse to ride their ids all the way to the edge, and then try to soft-shoe back into good graces. However, as Thomas Wolfe had already famously observed, you can’t go home again.


A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


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.


In Imago’s ‘The Lover,’ let the games begin

Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jason Gilpin are trapped in Pinter's erotic game

At one point toward the end of one of the little scenes in Harold Pinter’s “The Lover” at Imago Theatre Thursday night, Anne Sorce pauses, does a slow little pirouette, and looks out at the audience with a little smile on her face, before the blackout ending the scene. And I wondered, sitting on the top row looking down on the production: What if you filled all of Pinter’s famous “silences” with…dancing.

It so happens that this look of satisfaction is the last time we feel that Sarah (who is played by Sorce) has the upper hand in her relationship with her husband Richard (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin). But as soon as I typed that “upper hand,” I wanted to withdraw it. The relationship games, the role-playing games, that Richard and Sarah play have “winners” and “losers,” I suppose, but they are just games. And their aim isn’t to create Top Dogs and losers, but to kindle the erotic connection and maybe something beyond that between Richard and Sarah. So, in this game, they both win or they both lose. And honestly, losing looks like the most probably outcome.

Well, I certainly plunged into the middle of that one, didn’t I? Let’s backtrack a bit and get our bearings.


Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jason Gilpin in Harold Pinter's "The Lover"/Imago Theatre

Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jason Gilpin in Harold Pinter’s “The Lover”/Imago Theatre

Pinter wrote the one-act “The Lover” in 1962, part of his early burst of “Comedies of Menace” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, those deliciously dark, transgressive, confusing plays that made “Pinteresque” an adjective describing non-theater events. And like “The Caretaker” (which Imago will produce early next year with Allen Nause) or “The Homecoming” or “The Birthday Party,” it can be played as a comedy (farcical or black, take your pick) or as a bitter sort of drama, depending on how you want to interpret it.

Director Jerry Mouawad discussed the possibilities of “The Lover” with Sorce and Gilpin. Here’s what he told ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks:

“We picked a possible interpretation of how this particular couple got to this particular position. I’ve chosen one (interpretation) that I thought had the highest risk for the characters.”

He didn’t explain that interpretation to Mr. Hicks, but having seen the show, I’d say he starts it out a little on the comic side and then pirouettes—a little like Sorce does—and starts down a road that gets increasingly melodramatic and desperate for the characters. That’s because Richard starts making noises that indicate he doesn’t want to play the game any more at all. And then what’s left?

Pinter answered that question in an essay he wrote around the same he wrote “The Lover”:

We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase: ‘failure of communication’ … and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.

If we think of “The Lover” in this context, the erotic games, their verbal and physical sparring, are a mutual agreement by Richard and Sarah, a substitution for real disclosure that in fact really discloses both their emptiness and their need to keep it hidden. And this production plunges right into the desperation: Their need to continue to play-act! To play a role. To give their lives a false coherence around the characters “lover,” “mistress” and “whore.”


I make the case for Mouawad’s choice here maybe because I think that a more comic choice would have gone down much more easily for his audience. That route is easy to imagine, especially with Sorce on board. She’s shown she can do arch comedy in both “Beaux Arts Club” and “The Black Lizard” at Imago, and there’s no doubt she could give us a sly Sarah who NEVER reveals a true emotion. And Gilpin could play the possible dissolution of the game as PART of the game. In short, “The Lover” could be a lot softer than this version, a direction that a lot of productions go with material this hard.

Sarah: Are you playing a game?
Richard: I don’t play games.

That could be a great laugh line. All Sorce had to do was turn gracefully toward the audience and give us that little smile of hers. Treated seriously, as an honest reflection of Richard’s thinking about himself, it’s intelligible only if we assume that he understands that the erotic game they are playing is truly all they have. Dissolve it and more than the game ends. Mouawad and his cast take Richard’s threat to end the game seriously and that generates the desperation that unsettles Sarah.

“I think things are beautifully balanced, Richard,” she says right before that dancerly pirouette earlier in the play, and the rest of “The Lover” serves to knock her off that center. Sorce represents that physically; each time Richard (or his alter-ego Max) knocks her down, she has rise and re-set herself on her (often) high heels. By the end, this is a slow, deliberate re-centering, as though she needs time to gather her energy to keep the survival game going a little longer.


Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jay Gilson play the bongo and each other in "The Lover"/Imago Theatre

Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Jay Gilson play the bongo and each other in “The Lover”/Imago Theatre

Yes, Sarah takes a few falls.

“I must say I find your attitude toward women alarming,” Sarah says to Richard, and a feminist criticism of “The Lover” is possible, especially the way this one plays out. Richard threatens to end it, Sarah pleads for him not to (“You’re doing your best to ruin the whole afternoon”), he launches into a giant rant built around her alleged boniness, and stays in a corrosive place until the very end. While she plays “Mistress and Lover,” he plays “Whore and John.” She talks admiringly of her “Lover”; he disparages his “Whore” (“I’m very well acquainted with a whore, but not a mistress,” he says).


SPOILER ALERT! Skip down to the next section if you want to avoid a central “reveal” of the plot.

(I’m assuming you’ve figured this out, right? Richard is also Max, Sarah’s lover; Sarah is Richard’s “whore.”)


Fifty years later, do we want to make the argument that Pinter in 1962 was insufficiently feminist? That he had his thumb down on the “male” side of the scale? Well, yes, for me, maybe so. Pinter’s point is about the existential condition of humans or rather the extent they will go to avoid that condition. As self-composed as Sarah can be, her condition is somehow worse than Richard’s, and frankly, I wanted her to take off one of those high heels and clock him in the head with it. (Not that I believe that violence solves anything!)

“You can’t get out, darling—you’re trapped.” I think Richard says this, and it is a good commentary on how the games we play come to own us, how we are stuck with their formulations and their roles.

Back to that essay by Pinter:

“I am not suggesting that no character in a play can ever say what he in fact means. Not at all. I have found that there invariably does come a moment when this happens, when he says something, perhaps, which he has never said before. And where this happens, what he says is irrevocable, and can never be taken back.”

Is this one of those moments? I think it might be, and in the context of the play and the Imago production, it also suggests that Richard is trapped, too. Richard and Sarah are stuck in “The Lover” until it ends. The playwright has trapped them there. The resolution of their tension will have to come from the game, from the lines they are dealt. They are truly trapped. And so, in this, they are equals, Richard and Sarah.


Will you love “The Lover”?

I have no idea, of course. I enjoyed watching Sorce and Gilpin find their way around the simple set on the Imago stage. I’d never seen a production of “The Lover,” so I was happy to see one. I was surprised by the tack Mouawad and company took with it, toward the near-melodramatic, but once I thought about it, I found it defensible.

And I don’t think it’s a play you “love” in any case. It should leave you a little uneasy, shouldn’t it? About the fictions we employ to make ourselves comprehensible to ourselves? About the places we’ll do almost anything to avoid? And how that’s funny in a mordant sort of way? Sounds virtually Pinteresque.

Imago leaps into a new affair

Jerry Mouawad adds a fresh take on Pinter's "The Lover" to the company's hopping schedule

Jerry Mouawad doesn’t much care for stillness, unless it’s preparing for a pounce. Like his partner Carol Triffle, who founded Imago Theatre with him almost 35 years ago, he’s a theatrical perpetual-motion machine. And like the costumed creatures in their hit family show “Frogz,” he pauses only to gather energy and tension before another leap.

Source and Gilpin in "The Lover." Imago Theatre.

Sorce and Gilpin in “The Lover.” Imago Theatre.

Right now, Imago’s jumping all over the place:

  • Tears of Joy, the noted puppet theater, has moved into the Imago space on the near East Side, and the two companies, both known for their highly inventive visual approaches to theater, are busily working out the logistics of cohabitation.
  • Mouawad’s preparing to direct Allen Nause, the former artistic director at Artists Rep and one of the best actors in town, in a February/March production of Harold Pinter’s modernist classic “The Caretaker.”
  • He and Triffle are deep in the process of a new family-audience touring show, “The Elastics,” that’ll debut in May in Portland. It’s being conceived as something radically different from the long-running “Frogz,” with dancing, and some sections performed without masks, and a key prop provided by designer Michael Curry of “The Lion King” and many other visual extravaganzas.
  • They’re also developing a second major new visual production – “La Belle,” a new, and very different, Imago version of “Beauty and the Beast,” set to open a year from now. Triffle and Mouawad went back to Madame de Villeneuve’s original published version, from 1740, and “discovered that Cocteau and Disney told only half the story.” Expect to see the part that didn’t make it into the movies.

So in the middle of all this hubbub, which is more or less business as usual for Imago, Mouawad’s taken on a lover.

That would be “The Lover,” Pinter’s 1962 one-act play about the matrimonial and sexual complications of (depending on how you look at it) a married couple, a wife and her lover, and a husband and his mistress. Think of “The Lover,” which opens on Friday, December 6, as an amuse-bouche before Mouawad’s deeper dive into Pinterland with “The Caretaker.” But don’t mistake it for a trifle: it has gristle on its bone, and a lot of knots in its narrative.

In a way, “The Lover,” which stars Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Gilpin, calls on the illusionary skills Mouawad and Triffle have honed over their years of physical and mask theater, seeming to create something out of nothing.

“It had to be really low-budget,” Mouawad said a couple of weeks ago over coffee at Grendel’s, the little coffee shop and gathering spot just up the block and across East Burnside Street from Imago. “We threw it in at the last minute, because I wanted to do it.”

“The Lover” clocks in at a little under an hour, but it’s still Pinter, which means it’s a twisted and multiply knotted hour, and for a director or actor it benefits from a long gestation. “When I first read it I was amused by it,” Mouawad said. “This was two years ago. And then as I dived into it, it kept opening up and opening up and opening up. It’s really about all men and women.”

Besides stating for the record that “The Lover” has a man and a wife, and the wife has a lover and the husband might, too, I don’t want to get into the plot: it’s far better for you to discover it for yourself. Simply know that Mouawad considers the play to be in “game-playing mode, continual friction,” and he’s come to think of it as “in a way, a celebration of marriage.” And know, further, that Pinter isn’t dropping a lot of clues about what it all means. Mouawad ran across this piece of inscrutable advice from the author: “ ‘They’re just in the room, and the play speaks for itself.’ Well, OK, but it doesn’t really help me as a director.”

Imago's "The Elastics," a sneak peek. Imago Theatre.

Imago’s “The Elastics,” a sneak peek. Imago Theatre.

In a way, that’s Mouawad’s wheelhouse: something inexplicable, but structured so you can find a pathway through it. He’s recently completed a series of five plays he calls “operas without words,” relying on dance and movement and design for their emotional and theatrical impact. The idea is to bring just enough of the explicit into an implicit world. “I wouldn’t call this play linear,” Mouawad says of “The Lover,” “but I wouldn’t call it nonlinear, either. I don’t know what you call it. You call it Pinter.”

The actors came into rehearsal off-book, with their lines already memorized, and then they and Mouawad dove into the philosophical and practical possibilities of the little world Pinter had created. So many possibilities, Mouawad stressed: “We picked a possible interpretation of how this particular couple got to this particular position. I’ve chosen one (interpretation) that I thought had the highest risk for the characters.”

“The Lover” comes in on the adult side of what Mouawad wryly refers to as Imago’s odd little business plan: make your profits on the big family-oriented shows, and let them help pay for more experimental and esoteric work, from Triffle’s oddly comic escapades to Mouawad’s wordless operas and reimagined classics such as his tilting-set version of Sartre’s “No Exit.” But the plan isn’t really much different from most American ballet companies’ economic reliance on “The Nutcracker.” And Imago’s secret is that it takes “Frogz” and its other family-oriented shows very seriously, even when they rely on light comedy for their effect. The family shows work partly because they, too, are experimental (Triffle and Mouawad both have deep background in the methods of the mime and physical-theater master Jacques Lecoq), and they never talk down. Each segment of a family show is the result of long and sometimes excruciating development: “We put them under a really critical microscope. In other words, a five-minute piece might take two years to develop.”

Mouawad hopes the approach he and his actors have taken on “The Lover” will open up other of Pinter’s multiple possibilities. And, he said, they discovered in rehearsal that the possibility they chose works well for the first two-thirds of the play but not for the rest. So at that point, they switch gears: “The final third needs a different conceit. So I came up with one that was even higher-risk.”

Well, why not? It’s the Imago way.


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William Hurt and Tim True spar a bit in "No Man's Land" at Artists Rep/Photo: Owen Carey

As the title suggests, Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” is contested ground.

Critics and academics of various sorts have sorted through its characters and lines, seeking something “definitive,” but Pinter’s construction won’t sit still for an autopsy. The play is full of acute observation, acute longing and desire, lovely wordplay of the Beckett variety, fiction intentional and masquerading as the “truth,” wit dry and humor bawdy, cruelty and malaise, power and vulnerability, even philosophical investigation or possibly the parody of philosophical investigation, depending on your state of mind, perhaps. And depending on how it’s played — different productions emphasize some of those different parts. The same with critics.

Into this contested and ambiguous space, which perhaps we can all agree is at least melancholy if not profoundly sad, William Hurt has come to play the role of the poet Spooner in Artists Repertory Theatre’s production, which also stars Allen Nause, Tim True and Hurt’s son, Alex Hurt.

This is Hurt’s fourth run-out with ART (the previous time, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” was a co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company), and I think it’s his best. Maybe that’s because Spooner is so various in his parts and an active player can find enough quicksilver changes to keep himself occupied in amusing ways. Hurt is an active actor and I found his Spooner absorbing.

Maybe I also found him baffling. But Spooner shares that quality with Hurt.


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