Pinterist: Head Over Heels for Harold Pinter

Frank Corrado, here in rehearsal for the Pinter Fortnightly series
Frank Corrado, here in rehearsal for the Pinter Fortnightly series

Don’t go to a Harold Pinter play hoping for a happy ending. The British playwright, who produced work throughout the second half of the 20th century and won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, wasn’t much interested in tidy resolutions. “Elegant bows are not tied up around the gift box of a Pinter play,” writes local actor, playwright and Pinter fan Frank Corrado on his website, “We’re more likely to be handed an oddly shaped container around which is twisted, if anything at all, intricate and sometimes infuriating knots that we may be tempted to hack at with an axe.”

If Corrado has at times taken up that axe, he’s proven he can wield it with subtle grace and sophistication. Founder, curator and host of the popular Pinter Fortnightly series at ACT Theatre (in which local actors perform dramatic readings of Pinter plays), Corrado is upping the Pinter ante this month with The Pinter Festival, featuring full productions of two full-length plays and two one-acts, plus several sketches. It’s the culmination of lifelong admiration.

Corrado, 65, discovered his love of Pinter as a teenager growing up on Long Island, when he saw Pinter’s 1963 film The Servant (the playwright was also a screenwriter and poet). “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” Corrado recalls. “Its humor is wonderfully anarchic and twisted.” Like Samuel Beckett before him, and David Mamet after, Pinter imbues his often bleak examinations of the common cruelties people perpetrate against each other with absurdist humor. Corrado was immediately drawn to “his eccentricity, his slightly skewed view, his unconventionality and strange hilariousness.”

Corrado was immediately drawn to “his eccentricity, his slightly skewed view, his unconventionality and strange hilariousness.”

He studied Pinter both in college at Ohio Wesleyan and while earning an MFA in playwriting from the University of Iowa, but Corrado says his status as “a Pinterian” was cemented at age 24, when he saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s original, 1971 London production of Pinter’s play Old Times, about a married couple and the psychological sparring that ensues when an old friend appears out of nowhere. “I still remember moments from that production,” he says. “Using only words, one person destroys two people,” he marvels. “No guns, no swords.” In 1976, while working as an actor in experimental theater, Corrado had another pivotal brush with Pinter when he saw the original NYC production of No Man’s Land—another disorienting but funny story about the disruption caused by an unexpected guest—starring John Gielgud. It’s no coincidence that he chose to produce these two plays for the festival.

Now living in Seattle’s Bryn Mawr neighborhood, Corrado moved here in 1981 as the playwright in residence at Fremont’s Empty Space Theater, and went on to act in countless local productions. When Pinter died in 2008, Corrado was performing in You Can’t Take It with You at the Seattle Rep. Realizing that few actors had ever performed Pinter (and feeling confident his fellow cast members were up to the task), Corrado inaugurated the Pinter Fortnightly series in 2009 to renew and inspire interest in the playwright. It worked. The series has drawn both a fanatically devoted following and a talented crew of Seattle actors. Doing Pinter justice requires a special set of skills—the scripts are nonlinear, complex, often blatantly absurd, the dialogue is spare and vernacular, and characters are almost never saying what they really mean. Subtext is everything (Pinter is known and parodied for his long pauses), which is a challenge. “The actors have to have the courage to let the language speak for itself,” notes Corrado. “It’s very important to give yourself over to it. You’re dealing with a genius.”

The same sort of trust is required of the audience. “People may not have a complete understanding of what’s going on [during a Pinter play],” Corrado explains, “but they’ll have a visceral experience.” Much in the way that reading poetry inspires a mood or a connection, the plays make their own sort of sense, and leave an impression. “They provoke,” Corrado says. “They make people laugh and make people scared.”

In 2010, thanks in large part to the success of Pinter Fortnightly, Corrado received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Fox Foundation—including $25,000 for him and $7,500 for ACT—which helped ensure that the summer festival could be done professionally, with full productions and a paid cast and crew. In addition to Old Times and No Man’s Land, Corrado will present two one-act plays, The Dumb Waiter and Celebration, which he says “show how devastatingly funny Pinter can be.”

In The Dumb Waiter (an example of Pinter’s “comic menace” vein, starring Darragh Kennan and Charles Leggett), two hit men awaiting their next assignment are flummoxed when food orders begin to arrive via mysterious notes. “In a way, it’s akin to Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello,” Corrado says. “They’re at the merciless mercy of unknown forces.” In Celebration (with Corrado, Kennan, Anne Allgood and Cheyenne Casebier, among others) an unflappable waitstaff has to deal with two couples at the opposite ends of the social spectrum, “both awful.” Awful is often the norm for Pinter characters, but Corrado contends, “Even the bad characters are full of life.” Which is what keeps bringing him back to the work. In amongst the dark strangeness, he says, the plays are infused with “a tremendous love of life.”

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