Triad Stage escapes rut with offbeat selection

by Amy Kingsley

In the last couple of seasons, Greensboro’s largest regional theater has settled into a kind of annual programming rut. Triad Stage has kicked off the season in September with a literary classic of the required-reading canon (see Streetcar Named Desire in 2005 and The Diary of Anne Frank in 2006) followed that with a thriller and has debuted an expanding holiday repertoire in December.

The fourth production is a bit harder to pin down. In 2005 it was a drama, On Golden Pond, and this year Preston Lane and company staged a meta-theatrical comedy, Noises Off. Either way, the mid-winter offering has generally been something of a crowd-pleaser.

Around the time of the vernal equinox, though, the theater opens its doors to the serious tweed and turtleneck crowd. March and April belong to the season of artistic ambition, my friends, and this year is no exception.

Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker will not be everyone’s cup of tea. First there are the pauses. It is a minor tragedy that Pinter, canny as he is with words, became so popularly identified with the pauses in between them. Don’t let that reputation prevent you from purchasing a ticket; the Triad Stage production of The Caretaker deemphasizes the famous Pinter pause in favor of the lesser known one. Pinter referred to two silences in theater, the first when no words at all are spoken, and the second when “a torrent of language is being employed.”

Alexander Dodge’s multilayered rendition of a hoarder’s flat will also give flummoxed theatergoers plenty of visual input during the moments (and there are some) in which they may not be as aurally stimulated. Dodge, the scenic designer, depicted the apartment where the action occurs as a cluttered, monochromatic maw. Suitcases, broken appliances, wood, blankets, newspapers, spools and other detritus threaten to bury both audience and actors.

Director Preston Lane also loaded the cast with high-caliber acting talent. Kevin Kelly and Joseph Collins, both newcomers to Triad Stage with extensive professional acting credits, play brothers Aston and Mick. Robin Chadwick, who performed with the theater in Mirandolina and Angel Street, returns to take on the part of Davies.

Kelly in particular shines as Aston, the befuddled older brother and titular character. He takes Davies, a persnickety bum with a devious streak and no shortage of things to say, into the run-down house owned by younger brother Mick. Pinter gave Aston the smallest amount of spoken material, so the actor develops his character through downward glances and grimaces.

Davies is at once the most human and least sympathetic of the three characters. He betrays Aston, who shows him kindness, in an attempt to burrow into Mick’s good graces. The viewer is left wondering whether Davies’ attraction to Mick, who initially terrorizes him, is motivated more by self-interest or some psychology of the downtrodden.

Pinter entrusted Mick with the play’s best lines. The character is textbook Pinter: cruel, funny and entirely unpredictable. His grandiose schemes and on-a-dime rhetorical reversals drive the dramatic action. Collins plays him big, and Chadwick does the same with Davies.

Audiences unfamiliar with Pinter will enjoy their performances even if they struggle with the playwright’s unconventional story arc. And the story shouldn’t be so hard to follow once you put your mind in the cramped room alongside Mick, Aston and Davies.

Pinter’s gift, after all, is for recreating natural speech, with all its repetitions veiled hints. The playwright does not indulge in artificial exposition, so what you learn about these characters is the same as what you might learn during two weeks in their presence.

Pinter is credited, alongside his British contemporaries, with bringing the stories of underclass characters to the stage. The Caretaker is a prime example. You don’t have to know Pinter, or concern yourself with the whims of the Nobel Prize committee, to take an interest in an English flat, its roguish owner and two unconventional residents.

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