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Pass the salt: Barry (left) and Epstein (right) in The Caretaker.

Handled With Care

By Kathryn Lange

The Caretaker

By Harold Pinter, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through June 28

An acerbic stream of discordant jazz cuts through the preshow blackout in Berkshire Theatre Festival’s intimate 99-seat Unicorn Theatre. Composed by sound designer J Hagenbuckle, the piece crashes its way through each jarring blackout of The Caretaker. The tumbling clash of frenetic saxophone and piano, disrupted by percussive clanging, creates a purposeful frenzy. Harold Pinter’s language is equally chaotic and disconnected, his characters harsh, their interactions disjointed; yet in the right hands, his words spin into precise, unsettling music. In the care of the creative team at Berkshire Theatre Festival, Pinter’s play sings as it should.

The Caretaker, which first cemented the Nobel Prize-winning playwright’s theatrical reputation in 1960, studies the interactions of Davies (Jonathan Epstein), mentally challenged young Aston (Tommy Schrider) and Aston’s younger brother Mick (James Barry). After Aston helps Davies to escape a brawl, he invites the homeless man to stay in his attic flat, and the three solitary men are forced into a tense association.

An icy, often hilarious, struggle for power ensues, and the loose mantle of sanity shifts frantically between the men. Barry is wildly, terrifyingly manic as Mick. Slick, polished and abrupt, part auctioneer, part punk kid, part salesman, part serial killer, he seems to playing a game he’s devised but can’t control. His flashes between hostility and gregariousness are alarmingly abrupt.

Schrider offers a precise, childlike Aston, a damaged man who seems to have copied the awkward gestures of humanity, but not learned their heart. His stilted speech, practiced movements, facial ticks, and peculiar eagerness render his callousness somehow innocent. After the intense, uncharacteristic humanity of his act-ending monologue, his calculated isolation is all the more agonizing.

Epstein’s portrayal of the enigmatic Davies is deeply complex. He instills Davies with a dignity that belies his gruff, disheveled demeanor, and a humanity that burns through his brutality. He is bitter, manipulative, ungrateful, judgmental and cold. Yet, he is so tired, so desperate, so human, at times so warm, that he is forgivable.

Under the guidance of director Eric Hill, each moment is tight, each detail essential. The dialogue, as Pinter is famous for, is deliberately disconnected. The characters rarely converse with each other; they speak at each other in unrelated spurts. They articulate the brutally obvious. They contradict the obvious with absurd conviction. They stay pointlessly, painfully guarded. And when they finally share a scrap of intimate truth, no one listens. It is a delicate tightrope of language and psychology, and Hill and his team balance it with practiced precariousness.

The entirety of the action takes place in a shabby one-room attic apartment, meticulously created by scenic designer Jonathan Wentz. The sharply angled roof, the filthy, moss-green walls, the single window curtained in sackcloth, and the careful chaos of accumulated detritus that rings the stage create an exquisitely depressed playing ground for the three-man comedy of menace. A single chair, usually at center, serves trifold as interrogation chamber, isolated respite, and confessional.

Lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson illuminates the space with powerful, though often subtle, shading. At times, looming shadows heighten the sense of terror in the claustrophobic space. At others, the small room is bathed in a golden glow, imbuing it, almost, with a sense of home. Adelson’s lighting also serves to enhance the separation between the men. Aston stands stone faced at the window washed in icy blue light. Behind him, bathed in the glow of the room’s single bare bulb, a broken Davies pleads for mercy. In the final monologue of Act 1, when Aston discloses his brutal past, the light gradually closes in to a tight spot, leaving Aston—in his greatest moment of openness and vulnerability—utterly alone.

Yoshinori Tanokura’s costuming reveals much about the characters from their first appearance onstage. Mick is slick and snakelike in a black leather coat and snug dark button-down. Amid the debris of the derelict apartment, Aston is absurdly meticulous in his pinstripe suit, tie and cardigan. And yet it is Aston’s feeble attempts to maintain his own curious sense of order that garner much of the sympathy for the young man. Davis staggers onstage in a tattered overcoat, stained down to his long johns. His wool socks and worn sandals are so caked with mud that it aches just to look at his feet.

In their scattered isolation, the three men are bound by the frayed thread of unrealized goals: Davies wants to get his papers and “fix himself up”; once Aston builds his shed he can “really get started”; and Mick fancies turning the dilapidated attic into a penthouse apartment. But they create meaningless obstacles with equally meaningless solutions. “What I need is a clock,” insists Davies. “Then I’d stand a bit of a chance.” They wallow in apathy and circumstance, and never make a shred of progress.

The Caretaker is a play about cruelty, domination and manipulation, about apathy and dying dreams, about loneliness and hopelessness and desperate isolation. There can be no happy ending. And yet, shot into that darkness, the few flickering moments of connection or kindness become monumentally poignant.

The play is brutal and difficult and funny as hell. It’s intimate, and intricate, as human as it is inhumane. The play is important. Make the drive. It’s worth it—to see Pinter done right, to see theater done right.

My Sweet Transvestite

I Am My Own Wife

By Doug Wright, directed by Andrew Volkoff

Barrington Stage Company, Stage 2, Pittsfield, Mass., through June 8


If you haven’t made the acquaintance of Vince Gatton, you are missing a great evening in theater. Julie Boyd, Barrington Stage Company’s artistic director, first brought Gatton to Pittsfield in the hilarious one-person show Fully Committed, which was one of the best productions to play the Berkshires last year or, for that matter, any year. Now the prodigiously talented Gatton is back in another one-person show, but one of a very different nature.

Where Fully Committed was breathlessly paced and produced nonstop laughs, I Am My Own Wife is by turns touching, intriguing and humorous. While our attention never flags, the play moves at a more deliberate pace to invite reflection and allow us to digest its fascinating true story of what surely must have been one of the most singular individuals to survive wartime and postwar Germany. That would be Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite whose given name was Lothar Berfelde.

Constructed from interviews he conducted with Charlotte in Germany, Wright’s play not only documents her story, but also creates her personality with authoritative attention to detail and a great deal of empathy. Although about 35 other characters (including Wright) are also impersonated by Gatton, Charlotte always remains an incandescent presence on the stage. By the end of the show, one feels privileged and enlightened to have met her in such a vivid manner and with the immediacy that Gatton imbues her. Indeed, given that her life is doubly filtered (by Wright and Gatton), the verisimilitude of the experience is even more remarkable. From the pixilated grin to the subtly sunken chest and spot-on accent, Gatton is a self-effacing wonder.

And just who was Charlotte von Mahlsdorf? During the World War II, she rescued rooms of furniture, including lamps, clocks, gramophones and phonographs (the latter two being especially significant to her). This was all curated in her home, which she transformed into the Gründerzeit Museum, so named for the period in Germany between 1890 and 1900 of which she was particularly enamored. There is much more to her than this, but I’ve a feeling that too much foreknowledge will dilute the engaging surprises of one’s first experience with the play.

It is a mark both of the play and the production’s craft that a facile explanation of Charlotte’s behavior is not foisted upon us. Instead, she remains a bit of an enigma, just enough so to keep her realistically dimensional.

Obviously, Charlotte’s transvestism lies near the center of our interest, but given Wright’s focus and Gatton’s gentle, measured treatment, this never becomes a mere curio. Instead, the interest is in how a transvestite managed to survive in Germany under the watchful eyes of the Nazis and then the Stasi (equally invasive communists), two of the most repressive regimes the Western World has endured. Besides this, I Am My Own Wife is a testament to the value of things left behind, and to the possibility of the near-miraculous and the selfless in a world beaten down by fear and selfishness.

As he did in Fully Committed, Andrew Volkoff directs. Given the authority of Gatton’s fully lived-in performance, Volkoff seems the ideal collaborator for this uniquely engaging play and its prodigiously talented star.

It is no doubt aided by Brian Prather’s setting of ghostly clutter, and Scott Pinkney’s selective lighting. But Gatton’s work is so convincing that shadows of his other characterizations seem to appear on stage whilst he is playing Charlotte, whose latent image similarly appears when the focus is on another personality.

In Gatton, BSC has found a gem who reveals more highly polished facets with each appearance. How fitting that he should have been chosen to inaugurate the company’s new Stage 2, a diamond in the seeming-rough that has been marvelously cut out of the VFW building on Linden Street. It’s an inviting, comfortable and intimate theater with nary a bad vantage point in its intelligent stadium seating, another boon to the community.

—Ralph Hammann


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