Strawdog's Nearly Flawless "Old Times"

Mon. October 24, 2011 12:00 AM
by Michael J. Roberts

The plays of Harold Pinter can make for tricky going. Whether you're an actor, a director or an audience member, Pinter's frequent shifts into a gut-churning lyricism or surreal verbal aggression require a delicate finesse combined with a brute, fearless desire to dive right down into the bloody muck that lies beneath banal pleasantries and everyday chit chat. Happily for Chicago audiences, Kimberley Senior and the cast of "Old Times" at Strawdog Theatre (running through shmoobly) do everything right in bringing Pinter's language and characters to roaring, purring, shuddering life.

"Old Times," first performed in 1971 opens with the middle-aged married couple Deeley and Kate awaiting and discussing the imminent arrival of Kate's friend Anna, whom she has not seen since their wild bohemian days together sharing a cramped London flat nearly 20 years ago. Deeley is surprised that Kate and Anna were such good friends, since Kate has never mentioned Anna before. When he presses her for more information, Kate hints, evades and releases only the suggestive tidbits. For instance: Anna used to borrow Kate's underwear. Once Anna arrives, she floods the stage with words and soon locks horns with Deeley in a struggle for Kate's affections. But the longer the night goes on the hazier the truth becomes. Who remembers what, who was chasing who, who is lying, who is telling the truth, who might be doing both at the same time? All these questions begin to blend together as the characters begin to peel themselves back and the raw beating heart of the matter becomes exposed.

As you might be able to tell, it's difficult to describe the plot of a Pinter play. His works tend to start in the realm of everyday reality and then dissolve into something closer resembling a dream. If you're looking for a night of theatre where the orderly progression of plot is paramount, then you can count Pinter out. But if you're hankering for something that goes beyond the mechanics of plot and goes for the soft, vulnerable underbelly of modern existence, then Harold's certainly your man.

All three actors in Senior's production are near flawless. They approach the play's mannered, seething text with a grounded specificity that keeps even the strangest, most surreal moments of the play grounded in a truthful emotional state. Robert's Deeley makes an especially graceful, harrowing transformation from braying, insecure businessman to lithe, confident alpha male. Boucher keeps Kate a mystery up until the very end. Though possessing the least amount of dialogue, the audience rarely doubts she's the one holding all the cards. And as the ebullient Anna, Michaela Petro drives the show. The evening is most certainly an even, three-person affair. But if Roberts and Boucher are the wheels, then Petro is the engine.

The Edward Gorey-esque set by Mike Mroch is appropriately stark. The walls, floor and tables are gray, the couches are black, and the few splashes of color (Some ominously orange lampshades and pair of potted plants) only serving to highlight the lack of color everywhere else. The washed out look is helped by Sean Mallary's fine, un-showy lighting. The high moaning soundscape designed by Christopher Kriz, nicely underscores large chunks of the play but occasionally intrudes upon the action instead of aiding it.

Still, high praise is to be given for Senior, who keeps a steady, focused hand on the play's kaleidoscopic twists. Every moment, down to Pinter's meaning-pauses, is guided with extreme care. Speaking of those pauses: Senior and the cast do an excellent job of filling each one to the brim with silent significance. Even when no on onstage is speaking, the drama of the moment keeps you riveted to your seat. You dare not look away lest the scene take some awful, unforeseen yet somehow inevitable turn. Senior is to be applauded for presenting an evening of theatre so like a finely-tuned bomb: the precise inner mechanisms clicking all together to create a tremendous, devastating explosion.

Strawdog Theatre Company at 3829 North Broadway, (866)811-4111. Runs through November 12, 2011

By: Alex Huntsberger


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