No Man's Land

Harold Pinter can be difficult. His language is often dense, his characters economical, and his plays more about ideas than action. At his best, Pinter deals with issues and perceptions that have not occurred to the rest of us, at least not in a manner as concrete as he is able to illustrate. But that, of course, is why we go to hear him; as Ezra Pound once said "Artists are antennae of the race ..."

In the Germinal Stage's current production of Pinter's No Man's Land, we are challenged to grasp Pinter's experience of the uncertainty and unattainableness of truth. Yet, as great a challenge as the play itself is the directing of such a production, for existentialist theatre in the wrong hands can be deadening.

Thankfully, of all of Denver's estimable directors, there is no one more attuned to elucidating Pinter than Ed Baierlein. In fact, given his stylistic emphasis on the spoken word, one could say that Baierlein's modus operandi is Pinteresque -- No Man's Land is Germinal Stage Denver's eleventh production of a Pinter play in its 30 seasons. It is also especially poignant that this most linguistically refined work is dedicated to long-time Germinal supporter, the late Sue O'Brien, journalist extraordinaire.

Photo of Michael Leopard as Hirst and Ed Baierlein as Spooner
Michael Leopard as Hirst
and Ed Baierlein as Spooner
"As it is," Pinter begins, old friends Spooner and Hirst, both writers, meet for a drink after not having socialized for quite some time. At first, we get the impression that it is Spooner who is the more esteemed; his language is florid, witty, epigrammatic; he tosses off conundrums and tautologies; he savors his words as his drink, his diction and vocabulary as precise as his truncated, Chaplinesque moustache; he is fine-tuned, able to split hairs to comic intellectual effect.

The director wisely cast himself in this role. Baierlein, wig akimbo, wearing a linen suit with bath slippers, effortlessly pontificates on every subject dear to Spooner's heart, setting the pace for the linguistic chess game to follow.

Hirst laconically supplicates to Spooner's erudition and esotericism, all the while indulging himself in whiskey to the point of stupefaction, until he finally admits he is not the least interested in Spooner's digressions. Michael Leopard, gravelly-voice and phlegmatic, recreates himself with every scene, at first sitting glassy-eyed in his padded armchair, inured to Spooner's mounting ideological gymnastics, then phoenix-like awakening into a storyteller, braggart, and Casanova.

As the tables turn, and Hirst ascends before us, we marvel at the turnabout in perceptions, wondering why we didn't see such possibilities in the first place. Isn't this Hirst's house? Isn't he better dressed than Spooner. When Hirst's "associates" begin to arrive, our trust in what we thought was true grows even murkier.

Photo of Step Pearce as Foster and Michael Shalhoub as Briggs
Step Pearce as Foster and
Michael Shalhoub as Briggs
Step Pierce, as Foster, is edgy and confrontational before he even speaks; he walks slowly, leaning deliberately into each step, then lurks in the background, revealing nothing in his face. Suddenly, he stops Spooner from aiding a fallen Hirst, claiming it is his job to protect the old man, and begins to morosely wax philosophical; he remains enigmatic throughout.

Michael Shalhoub's Briggs is, on the surface, solicitous, anticipating Hirst's entrance seconds before he arrives and handing him a drink, and later serving Spooner champagne and an omelet for breakfast. Soon, however, Shalhoub, a man of a thousand faces, morphs Briggs' into an ominous specter, as he angrily carts off the stuporous Hirst; and then once again, Shalhoub reconceives Briggs as the picture of refinement during a speech extolling Hirst as a literary light.

What can we believe? Does this conversation really reflect our daily life "as it is"? One need look no further than the mythologies generated by the daily newspaper and television news programs to see that these men are familiar and their obfuscations and pretensions commonplace. As Sartre might have said, all of these men entered the room, some left and returned, yet they all remained in No Man's Land, icy and silent, drinking to "being and nothingness."

Germinal Stage Denver's No Man's Land runs through March 7th. 303-455-7108.

Bob Bows


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