the salt: Barry (left) and Epstein (right) in The Caretaker.
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.
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
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.
Am My Own Wife
Doug Wright, directed by Andrew Volkoff
Barrington Stage Company, Stage 2, Pittsfield, Mass., through
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
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
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
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
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.