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The Birthday Party.

By Harold Pinter. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Trueblood Theatre. 25 October 1992.

A large stucco wall spans the width of the stage, with a crack running from top to bottom, as if the wall were decaying from the inside out. Upstage left, a sink is mounted against the wall with a convex mirror above it. From beneath the sink, a funnel collects water from the drain. The funnel connects to a series of plastic pipes and elbows--a device reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg invention--which direct the water around the perimeter of the stage. Downstage, water pools up in the ripples of the black plastic floor. There is a hint of mildew. High above the stage, a man in a dark suit is suspended in a wicker cart, sleeping. It is Stanley.

Guest director Vladimir Mirzoev, a former Soviet citizen now based in Toronto, approaches The Birthday Party with a strong sense of personal vision. In his own words, "Any interpretation is destruction . . . after this you must make new flesh." In his adaptation of The Birthday Party, Mirzoev adds a carefully choreographed chorus of eight actors who embody the characters' subtextual fantasies and anxieties. By placing his visualization of the subtext in the foreground, Mirzoev reorients the production from Pinter's focus on language and silence to his own focus on the visual and sensual, yet he often overwhelms the text with his images.

In The Birthday Party, Pinter subverts the logical workings of causality and replaces them with mystery and ambiguity. Mirzoev, however, insists on making the causal connections that Pinter scrupulously avoids. He feels obligated to fill in the blanks with his answers, and to fill the silences with visions created by the choreographer and designers. Whereas the text raises the question, "Who are Goldberg and McCann and what are they doing to Stanley?" this production shifts attention to the machinations of Mirzoev, whose imaginative visual answers ultimately fail to adhere to the structure and theme of the play.

In a public discussion at the University of Michigan's Institute of Humanities, Mirzoev explained that he chose to direct The Birthday Party at the University's request for a production on the theme of "utopia." To Mirzoev, a utopia is "any kind of ideal space, ideal world, [that is] distant from our experience." He conceives of utopia in terms of his life in the former Soviet Union and the way in which Soviets created a utopian myth of the West. When he left Moscow for Canada, his myth was shattered by reality. Conversely, Russia has now become a mythic space for him, one that he no longer knows firsthand. Mirzoev brings this idea of mythic and real space to his vision of The Birthday Party. Mirzoev's central image for the play is crossing the borders between spaces: a black plastic area downstage, a comparatively "real" area in front of the wall, and an area behind the wall containing pianos and mirrors that is gradually revealed throughout the play.

Seen in Mirzoev's terms, Stanley's journey is a positive one: he is leaving a repressive state for a utopian space, albeit one that may prove disappointing. The opening and closing imagery of the production reflects Mirzoev's view of Stanley's journey from an environment in which he is dominated to one in which he is suspended, about to cross the border to an uncertain fate.

At the beginning of act 1, two nearly naked male chorus members, their bodies painted white, perform a slow-motion dance. They roll over each other in the puddles of water downstage, battling for domination. As Stanley exits at the end of act 3, the figures return, but this time one figure suspends the other in mid-air, turning him slowly as the suspended figure extends his arms forward as if flying.

Mirzoev's view of Stanley's journey as an escape from domination directly conflicts with the action of Pinter's play. In the text, Goldberg and McCann bully Stanley into submission and by the end of act 3 they lead him away in a nearly catatonic state. Mirzoev inverts the action, transforming Stanley's final exit from an image of submission into one of free will, with Stanley walking offstage unattended.

Mirzoev emphasizes Stanley's exit at the end of act 2 as the production's climax. Goldberg and McCann part the crack in the wall and lead Stanley upstage. Surrounded by writhing, half-naked chorus members, Stanley mounts a hydraulic platform and ascends to a crescendo of Gregorian chants. The lights fade to black as Stanley raises his hands above his head and a figure behind him extends his hands out, evoking a crucifixion. Pinter's stage directions, however, leave Stanley onstage at the end of act 2. After being discovered in the dark bent over Lulu, who lies prostrate on the table, Stanley "giggles" and "flattens himself against the wall" as the others "converge upon him. Curtain." By ending act 2 with Stanley's exit, Mirzoev undercuts the tension and uncertainty that Pinter carefully constructs in his text.

According to the text, at the beginning of act 3 we do not know where Stanley is. In fact, the central mystery of the final act is: Where is Stanley and what have Goldberg and McCann done to him? Just as Pinter's infamous silences and pauses often say more through subtext than his words, so Stanley's absence in this scene says more than his presence. Instead, Mirzoev stresses Stanley's presence by having him speak Petey's and Lulu's lines from offstage. The combination of Stanley's exit in act 2 and his amplified voice in act 3 robs the final act of its inherent tension.

The production's strongest moments occur when Mirzoev connects the physical action and design elements of a scene with the language. For example, McCann's compulsive newspaper-tearing becomes rhythmic support to Stanley's lines in this production. In act 3, when Petey returns home with a trombone, he punctuates Goldberg's speech with sporadic notes, as if affirming Goldberg's statements. These choices support the natural rhythm of Pinter's language without overshadowing the text. Despite the power of some of the production's moments, however, Mirzoev's disregard of Pinter's thematic concerns and of the play's structure prevents him from successfully transforming The Birthday Party into the "new flesh" he aims to create.
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Title Annotation:Trueblood Theatre, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Author:Knopf, Robert
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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