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THE COLLECTION, well done Pinter at Torn Space

THE BASICS: THE COLLECTION, a four-person (two couples) drama by Nobel Prize winning Harold Pinter, presented by Torn Space Theater, directed by Dan Shanahan, opened on February 17th and runs through March 11, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., plus Sunday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m. at The Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Avenue (at the corner of Paderewski).  Plenty of off-street parking next to and across the street from the building. Full service cozy bar open before and after performances. (812-5733). Runtime: 80 minutes without intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The action revolves around the question of whether (or not) Stella and Bill had a one-night stand while away on a business trip (they both work in the fashion industry). Stella is married to James and Bill is in a homosexual (to use 1961 language) relationship with an older man, Harry. Throughout the play, the cuckolded James and Harry try to find out “the truth” but, in the end, it’s ambiguous.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Shifts of power, sexual domination, threats of (pause) violence, actual violence, ambiguity, long pauses (pause) you can spot a Pinter play a mile away. They are “Pinteresque.” Whatever you know or have heard about Pinter (who was, by the way, the 2005 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature) it’s here in this play.

However, to say that “all Pinter plays are alike” would be the same as saying that “all 41 Mozart symphonies are alike” or “all Jackson Pollack ‘drip’ paintings from 1947 to 1950 are alike.” That’s what happens when a master artist finds his groove.

And this play fits my idea of Torn Space’s groove, which is to produce plays that make you uncomfortable, performed on stunning sets that put you a little on edge, using black and white actors cast without reference to color.

You should arrive at Torn Space a little early, not just for the cozy bar, but to read the playbill.

And, just as when you attend Road Less Traveled Productions, you should arrive at Torn Space a little early, not just for the cozy bar, but to read the playbill. Both TSP Artistic Director Dan Shanahan and Associate Director Melissa Meola are teachers, and she’s working on a Ph.D., so you know that their playbills are little labors of love of literature and language.

What made this evening so good? Let’s start with the set.

Scenographer (Set Designer) Kristina Siegel writes: “How to stage the spatial requirements of The Collection within the limited building envelope of Torn Space was quite a challenge…. I decided to use the cinematographic tool of a split screen and translate it into a three-dimensional set…. A perspective picture-box stage subdivided by a movable partition wall…. Creating very different spatial situations….The neon yellow color schemes of the apartment spaces with the bold gray block-stripe pattern contrasted with vibrant lime green furniture emphasizes the artificiality of the human behavior study lab and heightens the distorted reality of the play.” Well it worked. Especially the “perspective picture box” which is smaller upstage than down, which gives an off-balance effect. Along with all the other production elements, especially the soundscape, the set helped make this a very intense, non-stop 80-minute experience.

Photo by Mark Thomas Dugan — with Courtney Turner

The Sound Design by Justin Rowland complements the set and adds another cinematic element – a through composed score – that also never lets up. To my ear, the theme sounded like an ancient tune – “La Folia” – which has been used by composers for hundreds of years. You’re probably familiar with the repetitive nature of Pachelbel’s “Canon” which is frequently used in wedding processions. One reason is that you can repeat the “Canon” ad infinitum as the bride gets ready to process. “La Folia” is the darker, more menacing in its repetition, more “Pinteresque” musical cousin of that, the one that you hope won’t show up at the wedding. I loved it.

The lighting by Patty Rihn was clever and the cues were crisp and professional. This was apparent at the beginning where we hear a woman with an English accent (the original play is set in Leeds, England) describe the set. As she mentions each item “This is a chair” that item is illuminated. It’s amusing but also creepy with the disembodied voice telling you where to look. She then goes on to say “This is the only English accent you will hear during this performance.” That got a laugh, but it was an important line. In the Director’s Note, Dan Shanahan writes: “When directing previous Pinter works I gave special care to having the American born actor take on the British accent in order to best highlight the language.  In 2017 this did not seem important to me. I wanted actors to use their own strength of language and apply it to Pinter’s words. Each actor using language as a tool, shifting to brutishness, authenticity, put-upon manners, and storytelling. The goal is always to leave the other guessing – to feel they are losing control and in need of help and protection that can only be given by the person claiming to possess the truth.” Good decision.

The direction was clear. And in a Pinter play, that’s important.

The direction was clear. And in a Pinter play, that’s important. There’s enough doubt and ambiguity in the script.

The actors were all good, with perhaps Willie W. Judson Jr. as “Harry” being the strongest. With 40 years’ experience, you’d expect that. With that creamy baritone voice, the smooth manner, the controlled (most of the time) rage, he fit himself to the role of successful man not to be trifled with.

The play’s action is started by Stan Klimecko as “James” making a phone call at 4 a.m. to “Bill.”  Klimecko nails the role of nervous, angry, bewildered middle-aged man with a tendency to violence. Absolutely believable.

Nicholas Bernard is “Bill” the young gay man with the hot bod whom “Harry” found in a “slum” and brought into more refined society. He plays the petulant, bored, scheming boy-toy with an easy-going physicality. This is not a stereotyped performance at all. It is nuanced.

And Courtney Turner plays “Stella” who seems to be off in a world of her own. Pinter plays are enigmatic and her “Stella” certainly was.

This ensemble cast creates a powerful drama that holds your attention for the entire performance.

Lead image: Photo by Mark Thomas Dugan — with Nicholas Bernard

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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