Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Hothouse" by Dark and Stormy Productions at the Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House

I admit it - I don't get Pinter. Dark and Stormy's production of The Hothouse is the third play I've seen by English playwright Harold Pinter, and the third time I've left the theater (or in this case the bottling house) with a feeling of "what just happened?" Pinter plays are absurd, don't spell things out clearly, and are open to interpretation. But that's not a bad thing. In fact in this case it's a good thing. Dark and Stormy's production of this bizarre and funny little play is entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking. And like all of their work (this is just the 5th play they've done over the past few years), it's brilliantly cast with some of the Twin Cities' top talent, and presented in a unique nontraditional location.

The title refers to an institution where the play takes place. It's called a "rest home," in contrast to a "convalescent home," but the details of how patients come to be in the institution and what kind of treatment (or punishment) they receive is unclear. What we do know is that there's a clueless boss (an absolutely delightful Robert Dorfman, making the most of every moment), a seemingly sycophantic but secretly ambitious second-in-command (Mark Benninghofen), another employee who seems to be his rival for the boss' attention (Bill McCallum), a new and eager employee (John Catron), the lone woman on the staff who seems to be in a relationship with several of the men (Artistic Director Sara Marsh), and a lower level employee who walks around turning off lights and moving furniture (Bruce Bohne). The play takes place on Christmas Day, which is neither here nor there, but what is noteworthy is that one patient has recently died and another has given birth. The staff tries to get to the bottom of this, but seems to be more concerned with their own place in the institution. The newbie becomes the scapegoat, which makes me wonder if he's actually a patient and just thinks he's an employee.

the cast in rehearsal in the Grain Belt Bottling House
The location of this play is truly unique - a large open atrium in the Arthouse Grain Belt Bottling House. It very much feels like a cold institution - cement floor and gray walls, with doors around the perimeter on both levels. Sparse office furniture populates the set, with four rows of chairs on one side for the small audience. Sound escapes and echos in this sort of a space, so the solution Dark and Stormy came up with is mics on the actors and headphones for the audience. It's a very odd and cool way to experience theater, one completely new to me, with the sound right in your ears even though the actors may be whispering in a far corner of the space. This allows for subtlety in delivery that can be heard in full detail, while the echos in the larger space can still be heard through the headphones. It all makes for an innovative and fascinating theatrical experience (sound design by C. Andrew Mayer).

The Hothouse continues through January 4. Check it out for a truly unique experience of this bizarrely funny and inexplicable Pinter play. UPDATE: The Hothouse has been extended through January 10.