Exiled Theatre may be new on the scene but their Pinter/Beckett effort this month proves they’re a force to be reckoned with. We’d be lucky to have these exiles call Boston their home. ASHES TO ASHES and FOOTFALLS run through Nov. 28th at the Green Street Studios in Central Square, one block behind the Middle East.
Pinter acknowledged his debt to the older playwright: Both broke with conventional theater and embraced the existential notion that life has no “meaning.” Where Beckett sets his plays in a wasteland, Pinter uses a naturalistic context but his characters, like Beckett’s, are trapped in repeated dialogue and unexplained terror. The women in both ASHES TO ASHES and FOOTFALLS agonize over their suffering, fearing/knowing “it will never end.”
ASHES TO ASHES, deftly directed by James Wilkinson, places a proper British couple in a well appointed living room, having cocktails, perhaps before dinner, perhaps before lunch…perhaps….perhaps. She is telling him about a lover or is she? He seems to be patronizing her, not entirely believing her wild story about a lost baby in a bundle (which was borrowed by Edward Albee, by the way, as a “bumble”).
Being British and reserved, they cover their emotions with misdirection, as when the husband (we assume that’s who he is) chides the wife about using a “guilty” pen. “You don’t know where it’s been,” he says accusingly. She misdirects when she says her sister will never share a bed with her husband again. She isn’t talking about her brother-in law.
Perhaps she’s had an abortion or a miscarriage. Pinter doesn’t tell us. Instead he makes her a participant in the nazi atrocities of WWII, although she’s not old enough to have witnessed babies being snatched from their mother’s arms, not old enough to have been on the train to Auschwitz, not old enough for her baby to have been taken from her by a Nazi “tour guide.”
One thing is certain. Her guilt is relentless, her pain inconsolable. Pinter leaves it to us to piece together. Perhaps it’s she who will be spirited away by an ambulance. The husband coolly tells her there will be “a siren for you.” Stephen Cooper and Angela Gunn are both game actors, seamlessly trading off dominance and subservience as the play unfolds. Pinter hated the sentimentality of mainstream theater: Even though you don’t feel pity for either character, you do feel the dread.
Director Teri Incampo has made her production of FOOTFALLS visually stunning as well as hypnotizing, with Beckett’s repetitive language and reiterating movement. One woman on stage in a tattered robe, covered in what appears to be dust, (looking like Dickens’ Miss Havisham) paces up and back, endlessly up and back, wearing out the floorboards in one small section of the stage.
Her mother (a disembodied voice) explains that her daughter needs to hear the sound of her own footsteps. Incampo’s interpretation for the daughter’s ritual behavior has her clutching her crossed arms up to her neck as if she were cold or frightened or mentally unbalanced. Only once does she lower her arms. Then they’re quickly restored, like body armor, to protect her. From what? Beckett leaves that to the spectator.
The mother’s voice may well exist only in her mind. The circular dialogue (the speeches are actually monologues) may be the mechanism which keeps her steady in a world with no purpose, like hand washing to an obsessive compulsive. Kudos to Sarah Mass as the fragile daughter and Mary Niederkorn as the soothing “voice.” Even though Beckett goes to great lengths to eradicate sentimentality—everyone speaks in a monotone—you can’t help superimposing your own experience on the characters and being moved.