Joel Sass has this to say about The Birthday Party, the Harold Pinter classic that opens this week at the Jungle Theater.
"It's a lot funnier than people think," the director says.
It may be hard for people to wrap their heads around that. Typical descriptions for the Nobel Prize winner run the gamut from cold to brutal. And pauses. Long. Strained. Pauses.
Yet Pinter also had a sense of humor -- one that was fierce and brutal, to be sure -- and that often came out in his plays, especially in his earlier work. The Birthday Party, first produced in 1958, showcases both Pinter's absurd sense of humor and always-present sense of menace.
"It's like David Lynch meets Quentin Tarantino through Beckett," Sass says. "I wanted to do a Pinter for a long time, and do it the way the Jungle would allow me to do it."
The production marks Sass's first professional Pinter play, so the director did quite a bit of research. "I found a couple of really good anecdotes. In one, Peter Hall was directing a Pinter and was checking up on a scene that had gotten really long during the production," Sass says. The actors pointed to the script, and what was indicated by the playwright.
Pinter happened to be in the house watching the rehearsal. "He shouted out, 'I say bollocks to that pause,'" Sass says.
Though the play was written more than 50 years ago, "it feels to me very much part of our current climate. It is so much about a continually dangerous phenomenon of figures of power or some authority who invade your personal space, to dictate what you will do and how you will think or what you will believe. You see it all around the world and see it in our current political discourse," Sass says.
The Birthday Party was a late addition to the Jungle slate, after the original play selected ended up not being available to produce. The play was chosen after a group of actors read the piece in the Jungle lobby. "They did a great job, but I thought I would build the company from scratch and have open casting. I saw a lot of wonderful people, but in the end it felt like we had something with the cast at the table that was just a little extra something," Sass says.
It's certainly an impressive cast, featuring Steven Cartmell as the unfortunate lodger Stanley, Tony Papenfuss and Martin Ruben as the unexpected and dangerous guests to Stanley's unexpected and unwanted celebration, Katie Guentzel as next-door-neighbor Lulu, and husband and wife Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens as Stanley's landlord couple.
The Birthday Party is one of Pinter's "comedies of menace."
"Unfortunately, that is one of the reasons Pinter isn't done as often. We've all been to the bad productions that are glacial, or seen bad made-for-TV films that are god awful. Those are not at all representative on how his shows can be produced. His works responds very well to a touch that is rigorous, but not reverential," Sass says.
"It's a great roller coaster of a ride. It can be so funny, appallingly so, and then turn on a dime and have you on the edge of your seat with images of great cruelty and disturbing, nightmarish interactions," he says.
It's also a play that rewards an engaged audience. "It's like the best board game or role-playing game. It's a game where those who invest in it are vastly rewarded. There is not a wasted word, as the characters are laying traps for each other. There are constantly shifting narratives about who the characters are, what they are about, and where they come from," Sass says.
That precision needs to come through in the performances, which has been a challenge for the actors in rehearsals. "If they are not saying exactly what he wrote, it is not working well. It doesn't have the tension and the impact. The man knew what he was writing," Sass says.
All of this means that the audience needs to "check your assumptions at the door. This is an extremely funny, extremely savage, dark party," he adds.
IF YOU GO
The Birthday Party
Friday through May 13
The Jungle Theater 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
For information, call 612.822.7063 or visit online