Austin Shakespeare’s intimate “Old Times” baffles, disturbs and moves

Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in "Old Times." Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Jill Blackwood, Nancy Eyermann and Ben Wolfe in “Old Times.” Contributed by Bret Brookshire

Supposedly, while starring in a 1984 production of the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” Anthony Hopkins asked the playwright what the play’s ending meant. Pinter’s reply? “I don’t know. Just do it.”

This anecdote is a fairly good summation of Pinter’s writing, which is at turns provocative, elliptical, off-putting and confusing. It is also poetic, precise and very, very good, which is part of the reason why Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Old Times” (originally produced in 1971) feels so fresh and contemporary.

The other reason, of course, is the high talents of the team behind this production, beginning with its performers.

The play features three character —  married couple, Kate and Deeley, and Kate’s old friend, Anna, who has come to visit them. It very quickly becomes clear that Kate and Anna were more than just friends, and Deeley spars with Anna for his wife’s affections, while at the same time finding himself increasingly attracted to her. The tension between the three characters is emotional, psychological and dangerously erotic, a balancing act that all three performers excel at.

As Deeley, Ben Wolfe’s increasing frustrations with both Anna and his own wife provide the play with its emotional arc. His confusion, anger and fear drive the action forward in a cohesive line, even as the plot and characterizations begin to deliberately crumble into surrealist territory. Jill Blackwood’s Anna is sleek, sexy and poised, a constant straight line standing between the curved, crooked figures of both the set and the married couple.

Nancy Eyermann, as Kate, gives a standout performance, vacillating between placid mutability and steely control, even as Deeley and Anna fight for/over her. The intimacy of the playing space, which is entirely in the round, allows for her subdued style to shine.old_times_cropped-3229

Rather than trying to clarify an intentionally vague and poetic plot, director Ann Ciccolella has leaned into the mounting sense of menace that “Old Times” develops as it goes on, particularly by embracing the full-on eeriness of the second act. The set, designed by Patrick W. Anthony, is a simple living room (and later a bedroom) with bare furniture, but one that is deliberately crooked and off-center, with far too much space inside, evoking both the distance between the characters and the existential gulf that the play creeps towards.

Anthony’s lighting, alongside sound design by Lowell Bartholomee, also plays a crucial role in the production, creating both tension and mood. It is, in fact, these design elements that get the final, powerful word, even after the actors have said their last lines. The light and sound fill up some of the famous “Pinter pauses” and imbue them with a power that differentiates them from those pauses merely filled by silence.

Old Times is a forceful and emotional play, even if it is one that lends itself to multiple interpretations, all or none of which may be correct. Austin Shakespeare’s production plays up the text’s most visceral and disturbing elements, making for a powerful evening of theater that may confuse your intellect while still ringing crystal clear to your senses and emotions.

“Old Times”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through March 5

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $18-$44

Info: 512-474-5664, thelongcenter.org

 


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