Transport's third act
Vagabond theater company finally gets a roof over its head
By Jenny Lower 05/31/2012
It’s sheer pleasure watching Linda Livingston onstage — not just because she’s a fine actress, though she is — but because after six years of intermittent productions at various locations across Ventura County, her formerly itinerant Transport Theatre finally has a home. Collaborating with the Ojai Youth Entertainment Studio, it’s moved into the space Theater 150 vacated last year. Out of a cutting artistic loss comes rebirth.
For its first production in the new location, Livingston has chosen not a fluffy crowd-pleaser, but two Harold Pinter one-acts virtually guaranteed to set an audience off-balance. Like the rest of the British playwright’s works, The Lover and The Dumb Waiter are steeped in unease, as tightly wound and precise as clocks, ticking along like little time bombs. Transport advertises them for mature audiences only. While what passes for scandal here is tamer than what you’ll find in most PG-13 movies, Transport is right about one thing: Pinter is the last playwright to whom you’d want to expose a young person bent on malevolence.
Both plays hail from early in Pinter’s career, and we view them here in reverse chronological order. The Dumb Waiter debuted in 1960 and The Lover in 1963, but already they bear the telltale signs of major works like 1978’s Betrayal. Tight, tense dialogue marks shifting power dynamics. Pauses speak volumes. At least in The Dumb Waiter, we get the violence out in the open: the two characters, hit men waiting in a basement for their next job, both pack heat. But in The Lover the attacks between husband and wife, while no less lethal, fly under the radar.
The Lover feels like the more substantial of the two plays, and for that reason might have been better situated in the second slot. A middle-class, middle-aged British couple appears to have an ordinary marriage — until we discover their unconventional arrangement (at least, by 1960s’ standards). Taylor Kasch’s deft direction gives the script a somewhat lighter touch than might be expected, but it’s pleasing to see how well Pinter plays along the spectrum of viciousness. Livingston and David Newcomer star as the couple in question, giving exquisite nuance and pacing to the dialogue. Kasch plots their physical movements as carefully as a battle scene, showing us domestic life as both warfare and pantomime.
The tone of The Dumb Waiter will no doubt feel familiar to fans of Pulp Fiction, but it’s less clear whether audiences will recognize the outdated technology that lends the play its name. (We learn that the basement where the story takes place once served as a kitchen.) Livingston directs here, with Eric Stein as the jittery junior partner and Ron Feltner as the taciturn pro. Stein’s accent slides around more than Feltner’s, but his appealing chattiness plays well off the latter’s subdued professionalism. Still, it’s Feltner who gets to do the real acting here, with a performance we only get to appreciate fully in retrospect.
These one-acts function like short stories onstage. They’re a marvel of construction and execution, but ultimately unsatisfying because just as your appreciation deepens, they’re cut short — the story of Transport in a nutshell. The company will produce a short season this year (John Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife in August and a reprisal of their successful Judy’s Scary Little Christmas in December), but come next year, we look forward to a full array. It will be a treat settling into a full-length play with Transport in a permanent location — at least, as much settling as we’re allowed to do.
Pinter Play: The Lover and The Dumb Waiter, through June 10, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Ojai Youth Entertainers Studio, 316 E. Matilija St. www.ojaiyes.org.