Paul Birchall’s Got It Covered
This Week’s Roundup: The Wooster Group’s “REDCAT Pinter” Makes its Controversial Bow
By Bill Raden (for Paul Birchall)
The Wooster Group confirmed to Stage Raw on Thursday that following the run of its REDCAT world premiere of The Room, the avant-performance troupe’s radically reframed staging of Harold Pinter’s 1957 maiden playwriting effort, there will be no further public performances of the piece after its close on February 14.
The play had originally been conceived as the first of a Pinter trilogy by the company and a continuation of its iconoclastic interrogation of canonical plays, their historicity and the tenuous relationship between text and performance, author and director.
Those plans, which included full runs of The Room in both New York (where it was workshopped in October) and Paris, were effectively scuttled on January 27. That’s when Samuel French announced that it was pulling the rights to perform the play, presumably at the request of the Pinter estate, which has been notoriously highhanded with granting permission for the plays since Pinter’s death in 2008.
Samuel French eventually allowed the ten REDCAT performances to proceed as scheduled but slapped the show with a bizarre embargo on reviews in the press that quickly drew a strong rebuff by the American Theatre Critics Association and was predictably ignored by L.A. stage critics. (Stay tuned to Stage Raw for the review by columnist Myron Meisel, who declined REDCAT’s complementary tickets to the show as a protest against the embargo.)
Following Thursday’s opening, Wooster producer Cynthia Hedstrom, director Elizabeth LeCompte and REDCAT artistic director Mark Murphy all expressed bemused bewilderment over the Pinter estate’s preemptive move against the show, which for a company of the Wooster Group’s international preeminence as artists of intelligence and integrity is highly unusual, though not unprecedented … at least from a playwright still living.
Samuel Beckett’s attempt to revoke permission sight-unseen of JoAnne Akalaitis’s 1984 production of Endgame at the American Repertory Theater, and that same year’s threatened legal action against the Wooster Group by Arthur Miller over its use of a 20-minute chunk of The Crucible in its landmark production of L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…) are the stuff of theater history textbooks.
Speculation on Thursday about the possible motives of the Pinter estate ran from negative reports on the New York preview filtering back to Antonia Fraser, Pinter’s widow and the estate’s executrix, to the estate’s squeamishness over putting the spotlight of a major production on the play, which offers both a fascinating early taste of the writer’s signature elliptical ambiguities and ironic sense of menace along with some rather overripe absurdist gestures of its day that haven’t exactly aged gracefully.
LeCompte’s dazzling staging rigorously flattens and strips away the patina of now familiar Pinterisms to open the seams between language and theatrical affect. It’s certainly a show that plays better in the head than in the heart and something almost guaranteed to alienate less thoughtful Pinter purists.
Perhaps the most trenchant irony of the Pinter estate imbroglio is how it unwittingly charges LeCompte’s probe of a dramatic work’s textual authority, and how directors “inscribe” a text through “definitive” productions that are at once autonomous works even as they contribute to an interpretive penumbra that becomes inseparable from the original play.
For Wooster fans, the controversy becomes yet another reason why The Room and its remaining six performances are a must-see. For the rest of the world, what will undoubtedly be forever known as the Wooster Group’s “REDCAT Pinter” is already one for the history books.