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Matchstick man: Pilkington and Ingram in A Slight Ache.

Am I Getting Through?

By James Yeara

Pinter’s Mirror

By Harold Pinter, directed by Erik Tucker

Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 2

A violinist (Stephen Pilkington) scratches out “In an English Country Garden” offstage, then continues playing as he enters upstage right to cross the stage and exit. A second’s pause after the first entrance, Shakespeare & Company stalwart Malcolm Ingram, dressed in his English-country-garden-best trousers, vest and coat, enters downstage right to cross to the upstage center breakfast table. After a second second’s pause, Ingram’s fellow actor and wife, Elizabeth Ingram, dressed in her English-country-garden-best frock, enters from downstage left to cross to the upstage center breakfast table. He sits, opens the paper, and reads. She reaches for the brown betty, pours his tea, sits, pauses in silence for a second, then speaks.

Thus begins Shakespeare & Company’s first production of Nobel Prize- winning playwright Harold Pinter’s work. Judging from the results of this unique collection of three seemingly disparate one-act plays, A Slight Ache, Family Voices, and Victoria Station, it shouldn’t be the last. Director Eric Tucker, in his debut effort at S&Co, has his three-actor cast smartly attuned to Pinter’s poetic prose, static animation, and other similar Pinteresque contradictions.

Pinter’s earlier plays were dubbed “comedies of menace,” and 1961’s A Slight Ache features the Ingrams as the quintessential 1950s middle-aged, upper-crust wife and husband, Flora and Edward breaking tea, toast, and marmalade the morning of the longest day of the year. The sound of a wasp buzzing (sound design by Michael Pfeiffer) informs A Slight Ache, each burst of dialogue by the very settled coupled prefaced by wasp noise. The two disagree over Flora’s fear of being “bitten” by the wasp; they sting, Edward waspishly tells her. He traps the nettlesome insect in the marmalade pot, inciting another seemingly inane disagreement (Edward: “He’ll die in the marmalade.” Flora: “What a horrible death.” Edward: “On the contrary.” Flora: “He’s trying to crawl out of the spoonhole. Oh, yes, let’s kill him.”). Edward’s glee over his own cleverness in pouring hot tea water down the spoonhole to drown the wasp is matched only by his enthusiasm in scooping out the wet wasp and scruntching it loudly between teaspoon and saucer.

The wasp execution elicits chuckles and giggles from the audience, but by A Slight Ache’s end the symbolic richness of the event becomes apparent. Flora and Edward’s static agitation is turned ass-over-teakettle by the silent menace of The Matchseller (in an oddly excellent performance by Pilkington, who remains silent and almost still for nearly an hour). First standing mutely outside the garden’s back gate, then invited into the garden, then into their home, The Matchseller takes on the projected longings, denials, and fears of first Edward then Flora. It’s masterfully done, and it keeps the audience buzzing during the intermission.

The second half of Pinter’s Mirror features two shorter one-acts from the early 1980s, each ostensibly dialogues about miscommunication. Family Voices unfolds as a series of letters to and from a mother (Elizabeth Ingram) and her son (Pilkington), who is away in London for the first time. Pilkington’s portrayal of the son is a delight, but the quirky strength of the scene is the staging. While the mother sits centerstage, intoning her increasingly urgent pleas for news from her son, the son circles his mother, or stands next to her, their letters never arriving, never informing, never comforting. Physically they are together, but their words never affect each other.

Victoria Station is the mirror of Family Voices: a “controller” (dispatcher in America, the former being a more accurate description of Malcolm Ingram’s role in the play) tries to talk taxi 274’s driver (Pilkington) into picking up a fare at Victoria Station. Ingram’s exasperation inflates as 274’s driver seems lost in an existentialist fog: He has no idea where Victoria Station is (akin to a New York City cabdriver not knowing where Grand Central Station is), no idea where he is presently, no idea what a taxi driver does. The bouncing dialogue between the two finally drives the dispatcher to seek out 274.

As excellent as Pinter’s Mirror is, it’s not just the staging, acting, and sound design that make S&Co’s production so unique. Eric Tucker’s poetic “Director’s Notes,” composed mostly of lines from the play written in free-verse form, is the finest poem I’ve ever read in a program, and is all you ever need to know about Pinter’s Mirror.

 


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