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'One for the Road' offers audience seat in the uneasy chair

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Paul von Stoetzel hopes people will be sitting uncomfortably during One for the Road at the Bryant-Lake Bowl over the next three weeks.

The play is an unflinchingly intense look at torture from one of the masters of discomfort, Harold Pinter. It takes a hard look at a topic that's not been far from public political discussion over the past decade: torture.

"My attitude is that you may know about torture, but it is at a distance. What I like about theater is that you are not just experiencing it, you are empathizing with it," von Stoetzel says.

[jump] The production grew out of an earlier Pinter piece that von Stoetzel directed, the 2009 Minnesota Fringe Festival hit The Dumbwaiter. Von Stoetzel had hoped to mount a new show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl this spring using the same cast, but one of the actors was unavailable.

"I didn't want to recast it," he says. "Charles (Hubbell, one of the actors) and I had also submitted One for the Road for the Fringe Festival, but we're really low on the waiting list."

None of the actual torture is presented onstage during the Pinter play, which premiered in the mid-'80s and was inspired by the stories of "intense interrogation" coming out of Turkey. On one side is a family: Victor (Lijesh Krishnan), the mother Gila (Ariel Pinkerton), and their son Nicky (Morgan Guinta). They are at the mercy of Nicolas, played by Hubbell, a veteran actor who played another embodiment of evil earlier this year as the bloodthirsty count in Drakul.

"It's quintessential Pinter. It's simple and not affected at all. It's simply regular people in extraordinary circumstances," he says. "There is also an underlying sense of anger and frustration. That's what I really like. When I work on things, I want them to really piss me off."

A veteran director and producer of both theater and film, von Stoetzel is drawn to darker works, from the Pinter plays to pieces like Dinner Date, a short film based on the story of the "Rotenburg Cannibal," and the upcoming Curse of Yig, a piece based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop, which was first produced onstage at the Fringe.

"I always love pieces where there is a sense of ongoing dread," he says. "One thing I dig about Midwestern audiences is that when you have uncomfortable subject matters, they squirm a little more. Theater crowds in the Twin Cities are very astute, so I can push it even more. We are trapped in a room with a man who is dangerous."

Surprisingly, one place that hasn't been uncomfortable has been the rehearsal room. "We've been having a great time, even as we've had our two full tech runs, everyone is laughing. I don't know why. Maybe it's cathartic," he says.

One for the Road runs Friday through June 4 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.