By Harold Pinter.
Directed by Dado.
At A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago.
“If they ever ask you, Bert, I’m quite happy where I am.”
A Menacing Gaze Into the Fragility of Life.
Kicking off its 2016-2017 season, A Red Orchid Theatre opened this week its production of Harold Pinter’s The Room — suitably chosen considering its theatre space is just that, a Chicago studio room. Pinter’s absurd, existential play, ambiguous on story but menacing on mood, raises the disease of existential anxiety to a harrowing pitch before plunging us into the shocking violence of death. At the masterly direction of Dado, many strong performances carry this short production through its ponderous Pinter-pauses, demonstrating the mature potential of thoughtful and engaging professional theatre in Chicago.
Rose (Kristen Fitzgerald) occupies a single room in a large house with her husband apparent, Bert (HB Ward). While preparing Bert’s meal in preparation for his drive (a delivery of which we never learn the significance), Rose nervously talks on about the hazardous weather, the damp dangers of the basement, and how happy and undisturbed they are in their room — throughout which Bert, silently indifferent, reads his paper, eats his meal, and sips his tea. Even when the landlord Mr. Kidd (Anish Jethmalani) shows up unannounced to ramble on about sundry topics, Rose remains curiously on edge, fearful of some imminent event, and Bert keeps aloof, as if he were the only inhabitant in the room.
After Bert leaves for his drive, Rose, now alone, appears to go through the motions of attempting to tame the unpredictable capriciousness of life through the mundanity of ritualistically domestic tasks. For example, rearranging the furniture thus, versus arranging it thus: a silent meditation on the pathetic fragility of the safety and comfort of our little worlds that we endeavor to fortify against the wantonness of life’s vicissitudes.
The composed stability of Rose’s room is continually assaulted, however, first by the imposingly intrusive Mr. and Mrs. Sands (Dano Duran and Mierka Girten, respectively) — two oddly menacing characters that seem directed straight from a Neil Gaiman novel — and then again by Mr. Kidd, who this time begs (then threatens) Rose to receive the mysterious man in the basement who claims he knows her. Reluctantly, Rose agrees to meet the stranger, Riley (Jo Jo Brown), and, after some strange insinuations regarding her father’s wishes, Rose gradually warms to him and even appears to approach some profound and peaceful enlightenment regarding her fate. But once Bert returns home from his drive — revivified and, now, oddly loquacious — Rose’s newfound composure is rendered insecure once more by the unpredictable menace of violence.
The Room, Pinter’s first and most symbolic play, is as strange in its reading as it is here in its beholding — and just as difficult to decipher. Yet Dado’s direction is strong, controlled, and full of thoughtful intention throughout, offering a distinct and consistent interpretation on a play that might have been rendered incoherently disconnected in less capable hands.
That being said, I wouldn’t think this would be a production with a wide appeal, though the general theatregoer might just find the uncommon oddness of this production entertaining on its own merit. However, if one is not receptive to the existential mood the production inculcates in its absurdly bizarre progression — with its unpredictable shifts, impenetrable subtext, long pauses of active silence, and unanswerable characters and events — then one will likely be ultimately frustrated by this production because it never clarifies itself (true to the script itself). In fact, as excited as I was to see it, the production even lost some of my interest at the end, as I felt the pacing, designed no doubt to increase our anxiety for its conclusion, loses some of its momentum at the end (though this might possibly be due also to the script’s own increasing absurd ambiguities).
This is a production, though, that, if granted one’s willing reception, sustains and grows in one’s thoughts after the lights black-out at the end. Indeed, there is much to ponder over in this play — not in regards to the socio-political questions of the day with their stock and timely solutions, but in regards to the primal, existential questions and needs of security and control in the face of the unpredictability of life and the imminence of death.
A weighty and complex reflection, no doubt, but in the hands of Dado and her talented cast it finds a competent and substantial footing. The production has been Jeff Recommended, and my guess is it must be for Dado’s direction, Grant Sabin’s awesomely detailed set design, or Kristen Fitzgerald’s rock-solid performance as Rose. For a character haunted by and reacting to an unspecified dread, Ms. Fitzgerald finds at every moment — even the prolonged silences — a meaning and intention in every one of her actions that arrests us with curiosity and fills us with pregnant expectation.
HB Ward, as Bert, also sustains our fascination, and, particularly in his closing monologue, brings a palpable and alarming energy that gluts our fear for the play’s conclusion. Just as intriguing in their more minor roles is the rest of the cast, especially Girten and Duran as the Sands, whose oddly comedic synergy and behavior plays delightfully on our imaginations.
A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of Pinter’s The Room is, I’d say, recommended for an audience with a mature and sophisticated appreciation for theatre. Not that it’s pretentious or elitist, but, if one is not willing to follow its absurd and esoteric progression thoughtfully, one will likely be frustrated and confused by its conclusion (though perhaps still entertained by its menace and occasional comedy). For it is a sobering production that demands something of you, and you will only get something out of it to the degree to which you give in to it.
Reviewed on 3 October 2016.
For more info checkout The Room page at theatreinchicago.com.
Playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N Wells Street, Chicago.