Review: Being Harold Pinter

* * * *(FOUR STARS)

Under the Radar: Being Harold Pinter
La MaMa E.T.C. (See Off-Off Broadway)
Adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban. With ensemble cast. 1hr 15mins. No intermission.

The Belarus Free Theater employs several efficient poor-theater techniques in their Being Harold Pinter, a work that straddles political theater and actual activism—women trapped beneath a plastic sheet look like animals caught in ice, a bit of red spraypaint become a rough-and-ready bloodstain. It's a familiar aesthetic, and one that looks very comfortable in the tiny downstairs space at La MaMa. True, it's not always a good fit with the text, spliced-together scenes from several of Harold Pinter's harrowing dramas, but audiences at Being Harold Pinter may mind themselves not worrying so much about that.

The stark, enormously emotional performance by a troupe actually being persecuted by a repressive Belorussian state o'erleaps petty concerns about aesthetics. The first section does work on purely theatrical terms, as we hear Pinter's own words (taken largely from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech), and we engage with the axis of Pinter's career, the problem of man's inhumanity to man. That preoccupation made him an activist as well as a playwright, and though adaptor-director Vladimir Shcherban quotes Pinter's observation that political drama ought not be too heavy-handed, present suffering will overwhelm that Pinterian restraint.

The extensive middle of the production takes a series of stabs at Ashes to Ashes, Mountain Language and Old Times, and the gradation between theater-as-theater and theater-as-statement begins to shade toward the latter. By the final third, Being Harold Pinter is really Being Belorussian, as the cast recites from statements by political prisoners in their home country. Our own conversion also completes: We are an audience no more, we have become a congregation. Our critical faculties are overloaded by the presence of current, dangerous reality (and the courage to portray it)—and the question of whether or not the production itself is wonderful lies useless by the roadside.