Pinter's 'The Lover' shines with student production

by Liz Ellison | 11/20/06 6:00am

Student productions are one of Dartmouth theater's best-kept secrets. Unfortunately, these excellent plays are all too often overshadowed by the (also excellent) mainstage productions, with which they tend to run concurrently. Students who did not catch the gem of a play that rocked the low-key Warner Bentley Theater this weekend missed quite a show.

Harold Pinter's "The Lover," directed by Lily King '07, debuted on Thursday night and ended its run at the Bentley yesterday afternoon. The play centers on a couple Sarah (Erin Han '09) and Richard (Jesse Migneault GRLS '08) whose marriage has lasted 10 years despite their bizarre, mutually adulterous relationship.

Since this is a Pinter play, nothing is quite what it seems on the surface: Just when we think we understand what is going on between the two characters, another twist throws us off, highlighting Pinter's skilled use of ambiguous, if not outright misleading, dialogue and loaded silences.

We realize right away that Sarah and Richard's marriage is somewhat unconventional: the first scene finds Richard politely asking his wife if she will be seeing her lover that day, then kissing her goodbye as he leaves for work. Later we learn that infidelity runs both ways -- Richard, for his part, is "very well acquainted with a whore."

However, we soon find out that the status quo is not working for Richard anymore. His jealousy surfaces despite Sarah's surprised reassurances that he really is her true love. But as the play progresses, Pinter keeps the audience guessing as to just who is the lover and who is the husband. Sarah and Richard have created quite a complicated little world for themselves, and we are led to question whether this lover who has been causing so many problems actually exists.

As Richard and Sarah, Migneault and Han played off each other wonderfully. A fantastic, sexually-charged scene involving bongo drums showed off the actors' chemistry best, but any number of moments in "The Lover" proved that these two had what it takes to pull off an intense two-character play like this one. Though the dynamic of their characters' relationship changes constantly throughout the play, it always remained convincing.

At its core, "The Lover" is a drama, but there was plenty to laugh at in the characters' interactions, and Han in particular worked every "Pinter Pause" for maximum comic effect. Richard's stuffily affectionate manner -- whether he is interrogating his wife or awkwardly professing his love -- became even funnier when met with Sarah's impatience and confusion.

The characters' attempts to talk casually about their respective affairs were amusingly futile, but the games they played -- ridiculous as they seemed -- ultimately offered real insight into the things people do to keep their relationships alive.

The hilarious Josh Feder '08 managed to steal a short but memorable scene that set Sarah and his character, John the milkman and possible lover, at cross-purposes. Feder's priceless facial expressions and vocal inflection turned his brief appearance into arguably the funniest moment of the play.

Students involved in "The Lover" unanimously agreed on the benefits of working with such a small cast, particularly in terms of character development.

"We can get quickly down to the interesting stuff about what the characters want and what they want from each other," said King, who added that she selected the play "because it would allow for an actor-centered process."

Choosing to direct "The Lover" was a gutsy move on King's part, and it paid off handsomely. Although Pinter's plays have been known to confuse first-time readers and audiences, the actors had nothing but praise for the playwright's tight command of tricky dialogue.

"It is always a challenge and a real pleasure to work with Pinter's text," said Migneault, who added that since much of his background has been in comedies, working on a dramatic play "has been amazing."

Han also voiced admiration for the way Pinter "inverts absurdity and reality" in his work. "Once you really get into the world of it, it's totally logical and it makes perfect sense," she said.

The play's final scene brings Richard and Sarah together while finally confirming the truth about their supposed infidelities. Both funny and moving, the ending nicely captures the overall spirit of "The Lover." King's excellent directing, along with standout performances from both leads, made this production a clear winner.

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