By BEN BRANTLEY
A playwright's legacy throbs with anguished, enduring life in "Being Harold Pinter," a work of harrowing intensity and commitment from the Belarus Free Theater at La MaMa, part of the Under the Radar Festival of experimental theater that began this week. Tracing the relationship between power and violence in the works of Pinter, who died in 2008, this production out of Eastern Europe is both dismaying and extraordinarily heartening.
For while "Being Harold Pinter" would seem to confirm the worst conjectures of its subject's late-career, expressly political dramas - all parables of state-sanctioned crimes against humanity - it is also a testament to the power of a single playwright to inspire, illuminate and give articulate voice to powerlessness. Created by a troupe for which performance is an act of potentially imprisonable defiance, and whose members' arrival in New York remained uncertain until this week because of recent conflicts with the Belarus state police, "Being Harold Pinter" is truly passionate, truly political theater.
For that reason alone this production, which runs through Jan. 16, is a startling and shaming presence in these United States, where the only work of theater regularly making headlines is a delay-plagued $65 million musical about a comic-book character. But "Being Harold Pinter" (which is performed in Russian with supertitles) isn't just admirable, it has virtues beyond its relevance and bravery.
While this theatrical collage, adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, uses Pinter's writings to address abuses of power in Belarus, it never twists or distorts its source material to do so. On the contrary, "Being Harold Pinter" sheds revelatory light on works often regarded as shadowy to the point of opacity. And it finds a compelling continuity in dramas as far apart in time (and seemingly sensibility) as "The Homecoming" (1964) and "Ashes to Ashes" (1996). You start to realize the extent to which the domestic violence in Pinter's early works was a prophecy of the more explicit political violence in the later plays. And it becomes clearer than ever that the primal impulse to wield power, and its most savage manifestations, was always Pinter's subject.
This atavistic force is portrayed with great theatrical wit, stylishness and economy. The show's design is strategically stark, rendered exclusively in black, white and red. Four chairs form a semicircle around a cane, planted center-stage. That cane will be used as an instrument of menace and of outright torture before the evening ends. But its first incarnation is benign, when a slightly stooped man picks it up as a walking stick.
This, it turns out, is an actor portraying Pinter, who recounts a spill he took when his cane slipped on a pavement, shortly before he learned he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. The actor, who like everyone in the ensemble is wearing a black suit and a white shirt, falls to the ground and red paint is sprayed onto his forehead. The image shocks, and it is a perfect prologue to the less involuntary acts of bloodletting to come.
Much of what is said here comes from Pinter's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, one of his clearest declarations about how he works. At first he speaks of the ambiguity of characters who come to him unbidden, gradually defining themselves into being. The examples Pinter cites in his speech, from plays like "The Homecoming" and "Old Times," are given fuller life by the seven-member company, who sometimes speak in chorus.
Several forms of evolution are happening at once. There is, for starters, Pinter's description of his increasingly direct political engagement as a dramatist. But paralleling this account is the sense of the Belarus troupe itself coming into being, finding Pinter's voice with ever-greater visceral immediacy. A scene in which the ensemble members writhe beneath a sheet of transparent plastic becomes a shivery metaphor for the layers of creation and interpretation that go into any work of theater.
But there is also a feeling of the implicit current of menace, for which Pinter became a byword, assuming more literal forms. The violence in an early play like "The Homecoming" is rendered with fuller physicality than in more conventional interpretations. In this context there's an inevitability to the crescendo of later scenes of institutional torture and humiliation in plays like "One for the Road," "Mountain Language" and "The New World Order." And then, suddenly, we are listening in the dark to voices speaking the words of Belarussian political prisoners, subjected to tortures not unlike those described in the plays.
The work given the most stage time is "Ashes to Ashes," a two-character, 40-minute play that bewildered and exasperated audiences when it was first performed. Here it becomes so piercingly clear that you find yourself regarding it as a sort of Rosetta stone to Pinter's body of work.
"Ashes to Ashes" is a dialogue between a baffled, jealous man and a woman with a haunted memory of acts of inhumanity she could not possibly have experienced firsthand. It suggests that we have reached a point in civilization where, on some intuitive level, we are contaminated by the force of violent oppression even in far-off places, that our unconscious mind absorbs them against our will. And it could be argued that this instinct informs every one of Pinter's plays.
Pinter is known for his understatement, and there is little that's understated about "Being Harold Pinter." Such overemphasis slightly cripples some sequences, including one that underscores the ecclesiastical element in "One for the Road." But the fierceness, sorrow and theatrical electricity that crackle throughout this extraordinary production are pure Pinter. Early in the show Pinter is heard speaking of his own imminent death. "Being Harold Pinter" suggests he never died at all.
BEING HAROLD PINTER
Adapted and directed by Vladimir Shcherban, based on texts written by Harold Pinter and letters of Belarussian political prisoners; produced by Natalia Kolyada and Nikolai Khalezin; stage managers, Aliaksei Shyrnevich, Laur Biarzhanin and Artsem Zhaliazniak. A Belarus Free Theater production, presented by La MaMa, the Public Theater and the Under the Radar Festival. At La MaMa, 74A East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 475-7710; lamama.org. Through Jan. 16. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.
WITH: Nikolai Khalezin, Pavel Haranidski, Yana Rusakevich, Aleh Sidorchyk, Irene Iarochevitch, Dzianis Tarasenka and Maryna Yurevich.