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Originally published Friday, July 20, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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ACT Theatre celebrates Pinter with monthlong festival

ACT Theatre opens its Pinter Festival on July 20, 2012 — a month of films, performances and even a party dedicated to the work of the late British dramatist and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter.

Seattle Times theater critic

PREVIEW

The Pinter Festival

Friday-Aug. 26, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; films are free, sketch nights are $10-$15, Pinter Party is $15-$20, plays are $15-$50 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).
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ACT Theatre on Friday opens its Pinter Festival, dedicated to the work of the late British dramatist and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter.

ACT has a lot in store. On offer are full productions of a quartet of plays from Pinter's long career. Screenings of a documentary. An evening of his theater sketches. A master acting class.

The festival organizers actor (and Pinter Fortnightly reading series director) Frank Corrado, and ACT head Kurt Beattie, also are bringing in someone on very close terms with the playwright and his work.

A veteran British actor, director and teacher now residing in Canada, Henry Woolf was Pinter's close friend for some 60 years — from their school days in Hackney, a colorful working-class area of London, until the writer's 2008 death from cancer.

"When I first met Harold, he was a real nuisance, but so charismatic," Woolf recalled with a fond chuckle in a recent phone chat. "Most people who become very famous don't exactly dump their childhood friends but lose touch with them.

"Harold remained fanatically loyal. We had dinner together the night before he went into his final coma. I miss him — he was so energetic, so on your side, with such marvelous affection."

A charming, incisive raconteur, Woolf, 82, also acted in and staged Pinter works. And he urged him to write his first play ("The Room," in 1957), and directed its first production.

Woolf offered his own thoughts on the four Pinter works slated for the ACT festival (in order of when the plays premiered):

"The Dumbwaiter" (1959), directed by John Langs: "Like 'The Room,' it has a sort of primordial Pinter quality. Read it now and it's fresh as a daisy. In 'The Dumbwaiter' you get the whole mechanism and feeling of threat and mystery, and the comedy of menace ...

"Pinter showed in this one-act how we'd inherited a world Franz Kafka had foreseen, where you didn't ever know who would come to knock at your door, or if they were to be trusted."

"Old Times" (1971), directed by Victor Pappas: This story of a married couple, whose lives are disrupted when they're visited by an old flame, "is possibly the least humorous Pinter play."

"These are people fighting a deadly serious battle," observes Woolf.

"I always feel this play is hanging suspended from a scaffolding of words. The pauses and silences are so important, because that's where the play is."

He adds, "When we were young, Harold was dumped by an actress. He was terribly cut up, the most cut up I can remember him ever. And this girl had a friend who was always there ... She wasn't some objective person, she was claiming territorial rights to any relationships the girl had."

"No Man's Land" (1975), directed by Penny Cherns: ACT's is the first professional Seattle production of Pinter's booze-filled, four-way male encounter at the home of a literary poobah. The witty script is enigmatic, says Woolf. "Harold was a poet and wrote in images. It's a good poetic image that has simultaneous meanings.

"The intruder in the story is really Death, which trumps all his conversational whimsicality. He has a speech that Pinter put in his funeral, in a little booklet of things he wanted read. All the characters are named after famous cricket players, so it's rather a game between life and death. In the end, Pinter refused to give death a total victory."

"Celebration" (2000), directed by John Langs: One of the last of Pinter's plays, this one-act satirizes modern mores in a chic restaurant, where obnoxious young moguls are holding forth.

"It was inspired by a dinner out he had, and he had a bit of a lark in it with these terrible, really ghastly people," Woolf says. "He was allowed to write some lighthearted plays, and this one was very pungently lighthearted. Until a waiter becomes a kind of prophet, something like Tiresias [the seer in 'Oedipus']."

Also during the festival, Woolf will teach the acting master class, and participate in a cabaret event and other activities. He responds thoughtfully when asked to sum up Pinter's oeuvre.

"Previously in Britain, the vast majority of plays and books were written by middle-class writers, for a middle-class audience, but Harold changed all that. He not only changed the language people spoke on stage, but the whole perception of what the world was like after Hitler and Stalin."

Woolf continues, "He also recognized that conversation between people was very often a competition, a battle for survival. The idea that dialogue isn't just words, but a way of establishing your own identity in a world where's no longer certainty — that was a big contribution."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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