If you’re a Harold Pinter fan, you know why the arrival of his play “Betrayal” on the Perseverance stage after 33 Pinter-less years is an exiting theatrical event for our arts community. This Nobel Prize-winning writer is widely considered to be one of the most influential English dramatists of the past century; upon his death in 2008, the Guardian wrote that his only serious rival in that regard was Beckett.
If you’re unfamiliar with Pinter’s work, this local debut has the potential to be equally exciting, in a different way: here is an opportunity to introduce yourself to Pinter, to attune yourself to the distinctive cadence of his language first-hand, and get a sense of why he is so celebrated in theater history.
Shona Strauser, who returns to the Perseverance stage in the role of Pinter’s Emma after a two-year acting hiatus, said the flow of the playwright’s language, with its short lines and pauses, reminds her of a piece of music.
“I am a singer -- I haven’t been performing on this stage but I’ve been singing a lot -- and for me the script is super musical. It has rests, and 18th notes, and when I look at the page, I’m looking at all those rests and beats, just like a piece of music. It’s pretty great in that way, that the script plays that way.”
Pinter is famous for his pauses – the “Pinter pause” is well-known to students of theater – and for his silences, which are something else entirely, Strauser said. Both are tricky for actors to navigate; give them too much weight and they can become too heavy and artificial. Pinter himself was known to become irritated by productions that took his pause and silence cues too seriously and literally, with little regard for what they meant.
Director Bostin Christopher said part of the “real meat” of the rehearsal process was spending time on this very thing: figuring out what was going on in the quiet places of the script and in the subtext of the spoken lines.
“(The pauses and silences) are part of how he writes the structure of the play,” he said. “Part of the work that we as the cast had to do was look at finding out what that means. What’s happening, what is the unsaid -- not just in the pauses, but even in the language that’s being said, what’s the stuff behind that. Where are the secrets where are the lies, what is the subtext. It was a great journey to discover that.”
Strauser plays Emma, who is married to Robert (played by Anchorage actor Aaron Wiseman) and having an affair with Robert’s best friend Jerry (Los Angeles actor Daniel Billet). The story explores the interactions between these three players, their shifting intimacies and betrayals, across a series of years, while moving backward in time. The audience keeps up with the years with the help of unobtrusively projected dates shown at the beginning of each of the nine scenes.
Part of the effect of moving backward is that the audience often has more information about what is going on than the actors, Christopher said, one of the ways the viewer is actively engaged in the unfolding (or re-folding) drama.
“For me it’s written like a mystery,” Strauser said. “You get to put the clues together, figure it out.”
Strauser’s return to the stage is another highlight of this production. She last acted in “Boom” in 2010, and has since then been busy with her role as the theater’s director of education and, most recently, as director of “Oklahoma.”
She said she was attracted to the role of Emma in part for the challenge it presented, particularly in the emotional restraint the actors are asked to show. The sparseness of the text means that much of the acting takes place in the expressiveness of the actors faces and gestures, both of which must be scaled back to be effective.
“You’ve got to hold it back that’s what he asks for. For me that’s completely counter intuitive because I like to sing and be dorky, so it is challenging but I think that’s where the excitement for playing the role comes in. How do you do that.”
Strauser said that though there is that restraint, the emotion of the play – as the characters make choices and learn about the choices of others -- is something everyone can relate to, whether or not you’ve had first hand experience with infidelity. The play explores the layers of truth and untruth that make up every human relationship, raising questions about how well we really know those who are closest to us.
“It’s emotionally accessible. Everybody has had an emotion in that play at some point,“ Strauser said.
“It’s human relationships,” Christopher added. “It’s about love, and how we love, and why we love, and the things we do or do wrongly for love.”
The sparseness of the text is echoed in the minimalist design of the stage, which makes use of just a few key pieces — a curved wall, a bed that triples as a bookshelf and a couch, a table and two chairs.
“Design-wise I wanted something that was going to highlight the actors and the language,” Christopher said. “Kind of a minimalist approach, so we could really hear it and really watch them and focus on them and not worry too much about the theatrics of the whole thing.”
In addition to Christopher, the artistic team includes Akiko Nishijima Rotch on sets, Jim Cucurull on lights, Arnulfo Maldonado on costumes, Lucy Peckham on sound, and Olivia Tymon as the production stage manager.
Local actor James Sullivan also has a small acting role in the play.
“Betrayal” is not only Perseverance’s first Pinter production, it’s also Christopher’s first experience directing the playwright, and all three actors’ first experience performing his work.
“It’s a first for all of us. For Juneau and us,” Christopher said.
“Pinter is brilliant, he’s a brilliant writer, and I’m so happy that we’re finally getting a chance to do him and share it with Juneau – and Anchorage, eventually. And to see Shona on stage again, that’s a wonderful thing.”
The play runs in Juneau through Feb. 3 and will be produced in Anchorage April 12 - 21 at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
For more information, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org.