Dark & Stormy Gets Into the Holiday Spirit (?) with Harold Pinter's The Hothouse

The cast of <em>The Hothouse</em>. Front: Robert Dorfman and Sara Marsh. Back: John Catron, Bill McCallum, and Mark Benninghofen.

The cast of The Hothouse. Front: Robert Dorfman and Sara Marsh. Back: John Catron, Bill McCallum, and Mark Benninghofen.

Apart from the fact that it takes place on that holy day, it's hard to call The Hothouse a Christmas play.

After all, Harold Pinter's early black comedy is set in a nameless facility where bad things happen to people with little clear reason.

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"It's our new tradition of unconventional holiday programming," says Sara Marsh of producers Dark & Stormy. The Hothouse follows last December's The Receptionist, which dealt with some of the same issues of oppression and torture in the name of order.

Like that show -- and all shows from Dark & Stormy in its young history -- The Hothouse will be presented in a non-traditional space: this time at the Grain Belt Bottling House in northeast Minneapolis. The building has been converted to offices (which includes the Minnesota Fringe Festival), but the performance won't be in one of those places. Instead, it will be spread throughout the building's large atrium.

"It's a semi-public place, so there will be civilians walking around during the play," says director Ben McGovern. "You get this sense of really being in the room where the events are unfolding over two hours. It's like you are taking a trip to some strange institution."

"The location is the heart of the dis-ease of the setting," says actor Mark Benninghofen.

McGovern plans to use as much of the space as possible. So while there will be scenes played before the audience in the center of the area, others will occur all around them. That makes hearing everything a problem.

Dark & Stormy has a solution for that as well.

All of the audience members will wear headphones that will transmit the dialogue from the various places throughout the space.

The headphones change the ways the actors can play their moments. Since they won't need to worry as much about projecting, they can "play the scenes very cinematically," Benninghofen says.

"We wanted a place with concrete and steel, because we are in an institution and that institution should not feel comfortable to us," McGovern says.

Rehearsing in public has also been an interesting experience for the cast. "There are loads of disruptions. There were two people with dogs, then right after that we had people with a 10-foot Christmas tree. You could immediately imagine it was a tree for the patients," says Robert Dorfman, who plays the institution's head, Roote.

"One of the biggest things we discovered is that very dark and very absurd comedy has a beating heart," McGovern says. "There are moments of real tenderness that stick out to us in ways that are truly surprising. This play is about how systems take away from personal dignity. In a place like this that is so cold and icy that becomes quite beautiful."

Pinter wrote the play in the late 1950s, but set it aside and didn't have it produced for nearly 20 years. Since then, it has been rarely presented, but the creators find the script is full of the humor and intensity that marks so much of the Nobel-Prize-winning playwright's work.

"This is gateway Pinter. It is less obtuse. The quality of mystery and the unknown are here, but it is a little more straightforward," McGovern says.


The Hothouse Through January 4, 2015 Grain Belt Bottling House 79 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis $15-$25 For tickets and more information, call 612-401-4506 or visit online.