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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

“You’re Just a Bloody Woman!”

Female subservience examined in an evening of Pinter

Published: April 3, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

PINTER’S WOMEN: Emma (Olivia Mell ‘09, right) faces her husband (Josh Mervis ‘08  after having an affair with his best friend in a scene from Pinter’s “The Betrayal.”<br /><i>PHOTO  courtesy of  Amira Mintz-Morgenthau/The Hoot</i>

PINTER’S WOMEN: Emma (Olivia Mell ‘09, right) faces her husband (Josh Mervis ‘08 after having an affair with his best friend in a scene from Pinter’s “The Betrayal.”
PHOTO courtesy of Amira Mintz-Morgenthau/The Hoot

Pinter, by definition, is a man’s playwright. His works offer many creative, well-rounded opportunities for male actors to work in his world—to develop worthwhile characters, so to speak. However, as Olivia Mell ’09 stated in the program, “the female is diminished, not evolved, and she fights a constant battle against submission within her domestic universe.” Her senior project, Woman in the Background: Scenes by Harold Pinter, is misleading in its title. Each of the three women Mell portrayed managed to push herself out from the background and the overwhelming masculinity which dominated the scenes. This, in itself, is a testament not only to Olivia’s skill as an actor, but also to the depth that there is to be found in these oft overlooked roles.

Starting off the one hour show was a scene from “The Betrayal,” which was produced here in the fall of 2006. Mell plays Emma, a married woman having an affair with her husband Robert’s (Joshua Mervis ’08) best friend, Jerry. As a side note, Pinter is only properly done using British dialects, and for the most part, this was a success with the four actors. I am generally of the opinion that if you can’t do a dialect correctly, don’t do it at all, but I found little fault with the overall vocal work done by the cast. Particularly impressive was Mell’s ability to sustain her dialect throughout the entirety of the evening. Her first incarnation as Emma is one of quiet fear; the guilty wife who can’t bear to keep her silence any longer. Mervis dominated the text of the scene and set her up for great physical reactions which expressed Emma’s guilty conscience better than any more lines would have. The dynamic between Mervis and Mell was an extremely comfortable start to the evening between two seasoned actors.

Between the first two scenes, Olivia performed an onstage costume change/dance which she collaboratively choreographed with the director, Justin Becker ’09. Stepping out of her first outfit, a floaty floral dress, she revealed a black top and skirt, shifting out of Emma’s world into that of Sarah. As she swung the material around the stage, finally throwing it at Mervis’ feet, the quiet, meek first character was flung off as well, leaving the audience ready to meet the next one.

The second scene was from Pinter’s play, “The Lover,” in which Sarah and her husband Richard (Samson Kohanski ’08) share a vibrant fantasy life where he plays her lover, “Max,” and she plays the whore. From the moment Olivia re-entered the space, it was obvious that this was her favorite scene. There were several things about part two which made it the standout of the evening: the first ten minutes of this scene was a silent etude of seduction between Sarah and “Max,” involving a heightening of the sexual tension with drumbeats and furtive glances exchanged by both parties. The lack of dialogue only added to the feeling of voyeurism for the audience, punctuated by the well placed gasps and breathing of both actors.

Eventually, we were shown a montage of roleplay, which culminated in Mell crawling underneath a table with Kohanski, leading to a cry of, “Oh, Max!” and the two then appearing on opposite sides from beneath the tablecloth. It is interesting textually to note that Sarah never referred to her husband as Richard; he was Max to her during their entire afternoon tryst. It is during the multiple seductions we truly got to see Kohanski’s strengths as an actor. He sustained three voices in British dialect, each one matching a fantasy character. He also had the strongest and most consistent accent out of the three male actors in the show. Every different voice accompanied original postures, gestures, and motives for the shifting roleplays. However, the amusing sexual escapades took a sharp, painful turn when Richard finally expressed his dissatisfaction with their games and demanded to stop them for good.

The chemistry between Mell and Kohanski was wonderful and the second half of the scene quickly deteriorated into what was like watching a heart-wrenching breakup. Samson’s quiet desperation as the tired husband who just wants to be with his wife in reality, and Olivia’s frantic pleading as her dreams are destroyed in one conversation was so raw and emotional, it became uncomfortable to watch—as if we weren’t supposed to be there. When he slammed the door behind him as she ran to it, calling out his name, I felt pangs of sympathy, sadness, and a certain camaraderie with the broken woman we saw before us.

In the second transition, a different sort of woman was onstage. It was as if the Pinter-esque female had broken out of the text and was expressing the anger and passion that can be felt within the scenes but could never be fully expressed. This time, the objects thrown at the man’s feet were evening gloves and pearls, presumably signifying the drama and fantasy which were now gone. Mell ended this interlude by destroying roses on the table, throwing petals over her shoulders.

The third scene, this one from “The Homecoming,” began with Lenny (Robert St. Laurence ’11), a small-time pimp, pacing around the stage in a fit of sleeplessness. In another silent beginning, he picked up a clock and cradled it in his arms while meandering downstage. Through his movements and expression, he created a dangerous character from his first appearance. He gave a cruel smile, seemingly to the audience, when Mell entered from behind the seats. In this incarnation, she played Ruth, Lenny’s sister-in-law, who had just returned to England with her husband after living in America for six years. As this character, she had the fewest lines but created the most in control and dominant woman out of the three.

St. Laurence’s usage of vocal pitch and dialect were surprising but bold, which was refreshing to see. However, as a fellow audience member mentioned later, the somewhat transient dialect didn’t work out as well as Mervis and Kohanski’s did, though this can be attributed to having the least amount of dialect training. That aside, his downright creepy portrayal of Lenny was dead on and enough to make you wish he wasn’t focusing that smile on the seemingly naïve Ruth. The best part of their interactions, aside from the twist ending, was their timing on the lines and the way her silences and reactions played off of his macabre storytelling.

It was at the climax of this scene when Mell created her strongest character of the evening. Turning the tables on Lenny, Ruth gained the upper hand in what he believed to be a seduction of her and further throws him by seeming to verbally seduce him and leave.

By the close of the scene, he is scratching his head and stammering, “What was that supposed to be? Some kind of proposal?” at her retreating figure. This final characterization of a woman showed us what a female could be, even within the constraints of a Pinter play. Olivia’s transformation in this scene took both us and Lenny by surprise and ended the show on a high note for the woman who was previously merely a talking prop.

Not too bad for the expression of women in a very masculine world of the play. Overall, Woman in the Background: Scenes by Harold Pinter, was a success and an enjoyable theatrical work.