The Lover tests limits of student theater

Harold Pinter, playwright and author of The Lover, once said that “the speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear.” Pinter – the famous writer of modern classics such as The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and The Room – mocks the idea that what we say is what we mean and the assumption that silence is an absence of meaning.

Pinter’s The Lover, originally produced in 1963, will be performed three more times this weekend in the Wood Living Room, after a successful opening weekend Oct. 11-13. Directed by Jess McLeod ’02 and produced by The Upstart Theatre, The Lover digs below language to both prove Pinter’s statement and illustrate how the dangerous depths of our psyches inform both speech and silence.

The Lover, a short play running under one hour, concerns a young British couple, Richard and Sarah (Ian Lockhart ’02 and Dana Nelson ‘02), and a visitor named John (Ethan Rutherford ’02). Richard and Sarah seem to live an idyllic life together, even though they both share the knowledge that Sarah is having an affair. In Pinter’s theatrical worlds things are seldom what they seem and the thirst for sex and power (and usually sexual power) drives his characters to unusual ends.

Pinter is commonly lumped with Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett into a group dubbed by critic Martin Esslin the “Theater of the Absurd.” Pinter arguably writes the most disturbing plays of this trio. His plays can be interpreted on a totally realistic level, uncovering deep-seated sickness within seemingly normal characters. More often than not, real life is as absurd as Pinter’s plays, albeit rarely so expertly crafted. However, calling Pinter an absurdist playwright is an easy way out and is perhaps motivated by the viewer or critic’s need to distance himself from this sickness.

Pinter denies his connection with the abstraction of the absurd, writing, “I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground.” If his characters seem to be archetypes or symbols of a greater idea, it is due to the audience’s or critic’s interpretative work.

This production deserves to be complimented on the level of focus on the action which it engenders and allows in the audience. Williams student theater productions are commonly plagued by a number of distractions pulling the audience out of the action. These often result from poor design, direction or attention to detail.

The Lover’s spatial layout uses the entire space of the Living Room for the stage and audience, allowing entrances through the audience. The audience is made a voyeur into Sarah and Richard’s house, an effect which would have been extremely difficult to achieve in a traditional theater space. The characters’ costumes are simple but believable.

The actors were comfortable enough in their British accents that their speech could be accepted without drawing attention to itself. The accents are necessary, for to play Pinter without them would be to ignore the plays’ specificity to a certain culture and place which is implicit in their language. The actors’ performances showed a deep understanding of the text and of their relationships while still allowing the audience to fill in certain blanks. The performances were devoid of the student-actor quirks which often serve as constant reminders of the amateur nature of student productions. McLeod’s choice of a short, well-written text with few technical demands made this level of attention to detail possible.

The Upstart Theatre continues to provide an example of how inexpensively and easily student theater can be produced while avoiding the appearance of cheapness. The costumes, props, and furniture for The Upstart’s shows are borrowed. The primary expense for shows like The Lover is the royalties, which range from $30 to $60 a performance.

McLeod says that by charging one dollar per ticket, the Upstart has always managed to break even. Sound for The Lover was provided by McLeod’s manipulation of two CD players on a table behind the audience and the lighting of the Wood Living Room was augmented by clip lights and adjustable standing lamps.

In a student theater environment where productions commonly fall into the categories of small productions with low production value, or huge production value with little attention to detail, The Upstart Theatre provides a model which directors for Cap & Bells (Williams’ largest student theater group) and other independent theater groups would do well to follow. Nelson, a veteran of both theater department and Cap & Bells productions, encourages others to produce independent theater: “I think that students here don’t take enough chances with theatre.

Many feel limited by the resources that are most obvious – the theater department and Cap and Bells – and if what they want to do doesn’t fit into the realm of either, they give up.”

McLeod explains that “[The Upstart Theatre] came into existence two summers ago when I realized that “putting on a show” really only needed some actors, a director, a text, a space and some money.” The company, then called The Poorly Lit Rep, began with The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, which featured Lockhart and Peter Van Steemburg ’03 in a production which had the actors switching roles each night. Zoo Story was produced in Currier Ballroom.

In the spring of last year, McLeod directed The Brick and The Rose, a 1950s text about 1920s Brooklyn, in the Perry Goat Room. For this show, performed as “reader’s theater,” the actors surrounded the audience, standing at music stands and playing three to five characters each. At the end of the semester, McLeod directed Hello Love: A New Musical Revue. For this show, McLeod says “musical director Jamie O’Leary ’04 and I laced together songs by Williams alums Sondheim and Finn, Tom Jones, Mary Rodgers and new composer Jason Robert Brown for a talented cast of seven.”

In December, McLeod and The Upstart are planning a possible reading of The Chicken Soup Show, a show written by McLeod and based on the popular self-help book Chicken Soup For The Soul. In March she will direct Wonderful Time by Jonathan Marc Sherman and then finish the year with what she calls “something big that I won’t disclose at this time” adding that it will “be straight out of a modern drama syllabus.” McLeod says that The Upstart only goes on hiatus while she directs productions for the theatre department, and “as a director I’m pompously and ravenously tackling the classics this year.”

Critic Martin Esslin wrote in Pinter: A Study of His Plays that “the ambivalence of our social selves, the coexistence in all of us of the primeval, amoral, instinct-dominated sensual being on the one hand, and the tamed, regulated social conformist on the other, is one of the dominant themes of Pinter’s writing.” For a living, breathing example of the conflict Esslin refers to, take a look at The Lover this weekend.

The Lover will be playing this Thursday at 10:15, Friday at 8:30, and Saturday at 6:30 in the living room of Wood House. Tickets are one dollar and are being sold all week in Baxter Mailroom from 11AM to 1 PM and at performances. Students are encouraged to bring their parents on Saturday night in particular.

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