All In

CHAC's theatrical gamble.

With the recent announcement that this will be the Capitol Hill Arts Center's last scheduled theatrical season, one senses a great deal riding on the final production by this uniquely conceived cutting-edge outfit. No one expects a whimper, but exactly what kind of bang CHAC sounds as a farewell likely will determine the program's immediate and, one hopes, distant future. There's no denying the blunt, quantifiable importance of ticket sales this late in the game—if this show's a big, happy hit, might someone change his mind about pulling the plug on CHAC's ambitious theatrical wing?

So leave it to CHAC—which has earned critical raves and peer respect for consistently mounting strong, socially charged, gutsy work—to go for broke by staging a play by the notoriously difficult and controversial Harold Pinter, widely considered the most important and relevant postwar playwright. The Birthday Party, after all, is a vicious hurricane of a play: an absurdist comedy that leaps into hallucinatory terror; a gritty social drama cut with surreal slapstick; a cautionary political fable shadowed by proletarian noir and laced with an unorthodox species of postmodern nihilism. Pinter's style reveals flashes of Beckett and Brecht, Kafka and Shepard, Ionesco and Orwell, plumbing philosophical and political depths at once vertiginous and kaleidoscopic—a deep, dark intellectual swirl that confounds conventional analysis.

Director John Abramson, artistic director for the new Community Theatre, shows supreme confidence in his approach to this challenging work, keeping a tight grip on Pinter's script and probing the play's political and epistemological ambiguities through the performances of the five-member cast. Nothing fancy here, though the stakes are high—all is banked on the cast's ability to channel the relentless, sometimes unbearable intensity of Pinter's attack, which calls for equal parts restraint and aggression. The gambit pays off, splendidly.

The plot is elegant in its simplicity: A married couple—the frenetically optimistic and needy Meg (Shellie Shulkin) and her taciturn mate, Petey (Mark Fullerton)—and their moody, mysterious "guest" Stanley (Erich Tisa) live a life of low-rent routine in a boardinghouse in an English backwater. One day a pair of seeming strangers, the loquacious Goldberg (Karl Keff) and his nervous sidekick, McCann (Chris Macdonald), arrive and take a room; with all the vague yet single-minded drive of Hemingway's "killers" have these two men come to apprehend Stanley, though for what reason it's never clear. Goldberg convinces the impressionable Meg to throw Stanley a birthday party (though it may not even be his birthday), to which their young, vivacious neighbor Lulu (Emily Chisholm) is invited. The party, taking up nearly the entire second act, is a wretched, malign, slow-boil affair that implodes in a moment of outright terror and howling insanity. Needless to say, there is no cake.

There is not a weak link in the cast— each character is a fully realized three-dimensional being of tics and habits, repressed fears and subterranean motivations. Tisa is especially good as the haunted, hunted Stanley, a man who carries defeat in the slope of his shoulders, the arch of his neck. Abramson's keen direction keeps the action close to home, as it were, playing the show as straight domestic drama, trusting both the actors and the audience to glean Pinter's severe dystopian leanings from the script's human tensions. Rather than hammering on the obvious political content by underlining the play's more abstract and fantastic elements, Abramson's naturalistic touch—ironically or not—makes the play even more timely in this age of paranoia and terror. It's a very mature, sophisticated approach to the material, which with the excellent acting makes The Birthday Party something of a triumph.

Whether this production amounts to an epitaph or, just maybe, a new beginning for CHAC's theater program, it's a fitting gesture. According to Matthew Kwatinetz, CHAC's artistic director, the organization's particular "business model"—for-profit theater—isn't working anymore. Certainly a lack of talent or artistic daring isn't the cause; this is about money, or money management, and no amount of rave reviews will pay the bills and keep the company afloat. One thing's for sure: With The Birthday Party, the folks at CHAC have again proven their willingness to present tough, important work with a high level of verve and dedication. Whether that's enough remains to be seen.

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