Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 24, 2011

The dance of memory

Stanford Summer Theater explores the ways that reminiscences shape who we are

by Rebecca Wallace

Can you remember something that never happened? And if two people recall the same event two ways, how do you know who is right?

In the Harold Pinter play "Old Times," the roles are always shifting among the three characters: Deeley and his wife, Kate, and Anna, her visiting friend from the past. Who is right and who is wrong, who is strong and who is struggling for dominance?

As the trio talk over tea, making polite but increasingly brittle conversation, they recall powerful events, in often competing ways. Have Deeley and Anna met before? Who was wearing the black stockings at the party, Anna or Kate? Who was the man in Kate's bed that night?

By the way, where has Anna been for the last 20 years?

"Who controls memory? Who decides what the real memory is?" actress Courtney Walsh says after rehearsal. "It's a power game."

Actor Rush Rehm calls the drama "Noel Coward played at extremely high stakes."

The play is an intense, ambiguous, disturbing and sometimes humorous start to this summer's Stanford Summer Theater festival, which is July 7 through Aug. 14. The theme of the 13th season is "Memory Play Festival," inviting actors and audiences alike to explore the contentious, fluid topic of memory through productions of "Old Times" and Seneca's "Oedipus," translated by Ted Hughes and directed by Matt Moore.

In addition, a free Monday-evening film series delves into memory with such titles as Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" on July 11 and Hitchcock's "Spellbound" on July 18. A symposium is planned for July 16, with talks, discussion and scenes from "memory plays." A Stanford Continuing Studies course on memory plays began this week.

The festival's artistic director and founder, Rehm is also a Stanford University professor of drama and classics. He was himself a college student when "Old Times" was published in 1971. He's a big fan of Pinter, an acclaimed British playwright, director and actor, who died in 2008.

Rehm has played other Pinter roles before, including several in the 2005 festival, which was dedicated to the writer on his 75th birthday. But Deeley is special; Rehm says he's wanted for years to play this man, who is by turns confident, confused, teasing and shattered.

"It's a real privilege," he says after rehearsal in Stanford's intimate Pigott Theatre, where the play will be performed July 7 through July 24.

Part of the appeal of Pinter, Rehm says, is his distinctive language. "It's almost musical: speeches, pauses, silence."

Jeffrey Bihr, who is directing the production, agrees. "He gives you this marvelous and strange language, full of pauses and possibility," he says. "The play has the soul of a poet."

Pinter varied his sentence length to dramatic effect in "Old Times," as he often did. Short fragments can be followed by long monologues delivered in bursts. Punctuation is key, and every silence means something. A big part of analyzing the script is finding the meaning behind every choice that Pinter made, Bihr says.

"Rhythmically, it allows a kind of excited variety in speech and tonality that Pinter was going after," Bihr says. "It needs to be very real."

In the play's opening, Kate and Deeley are having a conversation in short sentences, with much conveyed between the lines. One interchange reads like this:

Deeley: Did you think of her as your best friend?

Kate: She was my only friend.

Deeley: Your best and only.

Kate: My one and only.

(Pause)

If you have only one of something you can't say it's the best of anything.

Later, Anna, the long-absent friend, enters with a rush of words:

Anna: Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember? my goodness, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden, what did we eat? to look back, half the night, to do things we loved, we were young then of course, but what stamina, and to work in the morning, and to a concert, or the opera, or the ballet, that night, you haven't forgotten? and then dashing for the matches for the gasfire and then I suppose scrambled eggs, or did we? ...

Lines can be harder to learn, leaving no room for paraphrasing, when actors must memorize every comma and period. But Walsh says these patterns of language help her make emotional choices as an actor.

"Is it anger? Insecurity? What makes people speak in long runs without punctuation?" she says.

Fellow actress Cristina Anselmo sees echoes of Pinter's distinctive language in the start-and-stop of playwright David Mamet. "Mamet's torn a big page from Pinter."

Another aspect of "Old Times" that appeals to its director and actors is the story's ambiguity. It's the dance of memory, ever-evolving. Who are these characters, really, and how do their memories of the past shape who they are today? What happens if someone challenges their memories? Many critics have given interpretations of the play's emotionally devastating ending (which should not be revealed here).

Bihr says he believes that his role as director is not to answer all the questions. Rather, he hopes to provoke many possibilities that keep audiences thinking, questioning and talking after the curtain falls.

"I set up an expectation and either fulfill it or whip it away," he says. "Either way, it'll work."

To highlight the ambiguity, Bihr has taken the unusual step of having the two actresses alternate in the roles of Kate and Anna. In fact, they'll alternate by acts. One night, Walsh will play Kate and Anselmo will play Anna in Act One, and then they'll switch in Act Two. The following night, the order will be reversed. Bihr says he's not aware of other productions of "Old Times" having done this.

To help the audience understand that the actresses are switching roles mid-show, Bihr has the two slowly circle each other just before the second act, with one then taking the other's place.

Walsh calls the casting move "brilliant," saying that it highlights the unusual relationship between the gregarious Anna and the catlike Kate. In one interpretation, Anna is "another dimension of Kate: the younger lustful self," Walsh says. Or perhaps Anna is a real person, upon whom Kate projects her youth. Or simply a past lover.

Whatever happens, the meeting is increasingly painful to Deeley. He watches the past intrude on the present, breaking his wife apart.

"And then of course if I don't know who I'm talking to, I don't know who I am," Rehm says.

In rehearsal, Bihr highlights that ambiguity physically, at one point having Kate, being played by Walsh, passionately lean over Anna on the bed. "I want this move quick," Bihr says, walking onto the stage and putting his knee over Anselmo to demonstrate. ("Is she going to kill or kiss her?" he says later.)

Walsh's eyes are fierce, while Anselmo is rigid, almost pale. A flicker of something quieter — perhaps tenderness, perhaps apathy — comes into the scene when Walsh slips her arms under Anselmo's back and slowly pulls her upright in a strange embrace.

Later, when rehearsal is over, Bihr is full of praise. "It's starting to crackle with some interesting layers and physicality," he says.

Walsh, who has acted at Stanford Summer Theater for five seasons, is also in "Oedipus," playing Jocasta. The translation by Ted Hughes is less common; Rehm says he's not seen it performed on the West Coast before.

As if the Oedipus myth weren't heavy enough, with the title character destined to kill his father and marry his mother, Rehm said Hughes' language is particularly powerful.

"It's a descent into the abyss for the ear," he says. "The language is dense, and the place it goes is very, very dark."

Fitting for the festival's theme, the play is the classic memory myth, with Oedipus not knowing who he is and slowly learning the horror of the things he's done, Rehm says.

"It's also a fabulous whodunit," Walsh adds. "You know it, but he's unraveling it." She smiles. "When is the moment of recognition?"

What: Stanford Summer Theater's 13th season focuses on memory, with plays, films and a symposium.

Where and when: Performances of "Old Times" are July 7-24, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Pigott Theater in Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University. "Oedipus" runs July 28-Aug. 14 at the same times in Nitery Theater, Old Union, Stanford.

Films will be shown July 11-Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. in Stanford's Annenberg Auditorium, with discussions following. The "Stages of Memory" symposium is 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. July 16 in Pigott Theater.

Cost: Tickets are $25 general and $15 for seniors and students for "Old Times," and $20/$15 for "Oedipus." Films are free. The symposium is $90, including lunch and refreshments (advance registration required).

Info: Go to http://summertheater.stanford.edu or call 650-725-5838.

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