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After Endgame
JoAnne Akalaitis throws a Birthday Party

The action in British playwright Harold Pinterís early play The Birthday Party could not be more elemental ó or more fraught with sinister implications. A single man named Stanley lives in a lodging house kept by a mismatched husband and wife, Meg and Petey. Two other men show up and ask for a room, but no one knows where they are from or why they have chosen this place. It seems they knew Stanley before and have come to take him away.

The distinguished experimental theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, winner of five Obie Awards, is currently in town to stage The Birthday Party, which opens at the American Repertory Theatre this Saturday. She says she canít explain what the play is about. "Pinter is enigmatic. However, in many of his plays, itís clear that the play is about the invasion and control of an individual. Pinter says, ĎThereís a room; sooner or later someone will come into that room and do something to you, take you away, change you.í For me, thatís one of the most profound statements of what drama should be about."

A philosophy major at the University of Chicago, Akalaitis worked as an actor before helping to found the experimental ensemble Mabou Mines, which was named for an area in Maine near the house she bought with her then-husband, the composer Philip Glass. But she didnít begin to direct until she was in her mid 30s. "We started our own theater because we were dissatisfied with the structure of regular theater. Part of it was, you were working for someone else and didnít have control over the quality. At the time, we wanted to own our own business."

As a former member of the tribe, Akalaitis has great respect for actors. "I do discuss the play with them, but I donít discuss the subtext. The actors provide the subtext; it belongs to them. My work is to guide, to observe, to comment, to shape. I want actors to be independent and powerful." Most of the ART regulars have been cast in The Birthday Party: Thomas Derrah as the hapless Stanley, Karen MacDonald as Meg, and Will LeBow and Remo Airaldi as the mysterious strangers. English Pinter veteran Terrence Rigby appears as Petey.

As is usual with Pinter, the language of The Birthday Party is simple but complex in its effect. "The language is tremendously rhythmic, different from Samuel Beckett. Somehow Pinter is more psychological. He says he writes natural dialogue, the conversation of ordinary people. The characters talk about cornflakes for breakfast, in which [conversation] there are possible hidden meanings or a hidden code. He doesnít explain his plays, and neither did Beckett."

The director is no stranger to enigmatic plays or issues of control. Her previous ART assignments have been a 1986 staging of Genetís The Balcony and a 1984 production of Beckettís Endgame that removed the play from Beckettís "bare interior" to an abandoned subway station. Beckett, who was still alive, tried to shut down the show. In the end, the production was allowed to continue; however, the program booklet included a statement from Beckett that called Akalaitisís digression a "complete parody" of his play.

Although Akalaitis has not directed any Beckett plays since ("I donít think Iíd be allowed the rights"), she did direct Pinterís The Dumbwaiter in the basement of a dorm at Bard College, where she heads the theater program. After The Birthday Party, sheíll head back to Bard to teach the second half of spring semester. She says sheís not a director who goes from assignment to assignment. "Iím lazy. I like to daydream. Iím picky about the projects I do. I end a project and I say, ĎI wonder if Iíll ever work againí. And I do."

The Birthday Party is presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, March 6 through 27. Tickets are $12 to $69; call (617) 547-8300.

Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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