Whose Play Is It, Anyway?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

You hear of a play. It's by a famous, dead playwright. You like the playwright, you admire his work. The production is by an ensemble company. They are avant-garde. You admire their work. It's an exciting combination. You look forward to it.

The play is announced. Time passes. Then you hear the play can't be done. Well, it can be done here in Los Angeles for two weekends . . . but nowhere else. The reasons are fuzzy but someone is saying that this piece of theater can't exist . . . or doesn't have the rights to exist. You go to see this ephemeral work of art whose existence is even more imperiled than theater normally is.

How do you feel?

My guess, even if you don't know which play I'm talking about is you're rooting for the play. Maybe you're even sad, disappointed that a work of art can be conscribed beyond the usual limits of funding and inspiration. Without even knowing the play, there's already a world of emotion.

The play I'm talking about is the Wooster Group's production of Harold Pinter's first play The Room. It's playing at REDCAT this weekend and unfortunately that will likely be the only chance to see it -- anywhere.

The reasons for that are, as I said, a little fuzzy. The short version is there's a rights dispute between the Wooster Group and Harold Pinter's estate. The estate claims that the Wooster Group never applied for the right to do the production . . . and even if they had the rights would have been withheld because there's a proposed production in London with transfer rights to the US. The estate has given permission for the Los Angeles production at REDCAT to go forward but on the condition that it not be reviewed.

There's something that doesn't quite add up in this dispute -- especially this last provision that the show not be reviewed.

What's going on?

Well, only time will tell if there actually is a London production in the works that could have reasonably tied up the rights to any other production. If that production doesn't materialize (and I'm not holding my breath), we are left to wonder why Pinter's estate wouldn't want this production of Pinter's first play to be seen. What is it that challenges the author's legacy or offends the aesthetic taste of his literary heirs?

One possibility is two fundamentally different ways of viewing a script and approaching the theater.

Is a script the beginning or the end of the theatrical process? Is it a sacred text that should be faithfully brought to life: a blueprint that dictates the very shape of the production? Or is it a point of departure? A place to begin the creative process?

Is it the playwright or the director who breathes life into the theater? Is it a director's job to merely shepherd the playwright's word onto the stage or is the director's role something more?

These are the questions that the Wooster Group's production and this dispute pose.

There is no question that the Wooster Group's production is more than a faithful reproduction of Pinter's script. The production is unmistakably a Wooster Group show. Pinter's is not the only artistic hand at work. Elizabeth Lecompte, the Wooster Group's artistic director, has clearly left a mark together with the ensemble on this production.

Perhaps that's what the estate objects to?

What you'll see are the familiar trappings of a Wooster Group production. There are the microphones, the video screens, the tech guys onstage. What you'll hear is Pinter's text -- plus Pinter's stage directions read by one of the actors.

If you're familiar with the Wooster Group's work, and given REDCAT's commitment to the company over the past decade you should be, you'll wonder what's on those video screens. Not the one facing the audience, it’s projecting a subtly shifting, slightly psychedelic version of the apartment's back wall - but the video screens facing the stage, which often provide visual direction to the actors. Those are showing a Chinese cross-talk comedy. They show two men at microphones who at times make sweeping arm gestures or punctuate their words with staccato hands. This is the physical score that the Wooster Group actors follow - recreating the gestures and layering them over Pinter's text.

Then at several moments during the play the cast breaks from speaking into what sounds like a Chinese song. The words are Pinter's but the melody Asian -- the effect jarring.

One can imagine the executor of a literary giant not taking too kindly to the foreignness of the Wooster Group's interpretation.

So does it work as a play?

I, personally, cannot separate the production from the surrounding drama. I don't know how much of the impact comes from experiencing something that is on the verge of extinction. Am I profoundly moved and affected by the haunting verbal violence and physical menace of Pinter? Or is it the threat to this work of art that moves me?

I even joked with a friend in the lobby that I foolishly hoped all the rights drama was a concocted part of the production - an extended performance art piece with the literary executor playing their own part in an meta-drama. Sadly, there's nothing but my imagination to indicate this is the case.

The production is haunting. There is no question the source of that power is Pinter's words but through the unique prism of the Wooster Group. On opening night, the applause had that cautious, hesitant quality that belied a theater that was both deeply moved and perhaps perplexed by what they had seen.

Placed in the context of the Wooster Group's recent work, it's one of their finest.

Should you go see The Room?

In a word? Yes.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 60 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Ari Fliakos in The Room (Paula Court)