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Kaleidoscope adds risk, edge to resume

“Beckett Dances with Pinter.” Now there’s an intriguing marquee invitation.

Until recently, any mention of Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter in the same breath would have been the stuff of folly.

But times change. A season ago, KTP tackled Sam Sheppard’s intense, troubling and unhappy “True West.” Walls remained intact. No one died. There were a few grumbles from the company’s regular playgoers but, all in all, there was applause for the show and admiration for the acting troupe’s grit and its attempt at darker themes.

Now the 11-year-old KTP is back with something very different, coupling Beckett’s absurdist “Act Without Words I” and its companion piece, “Act Without Words II,” with Harold Pinter’s bleak and gallows-humored puzzler, “The Dumb Waiter.” And, for good measure, first-time director Britany Hagen – who has worn many technical hats behind the KTP scenes for more than a decade – has added two original dance pieces by choreographer Julie Spendal to “examine common themes and reinforce ideas.”

The night begins, apparently, with a person (director/actress/pantomimist Hagen), perhaps lost, parched and childlike, trying to reach a carafe of water offered to her from an unseen source. The water is always just out-of-reach. There are tools – some wooden cubes, a rope, scissors – and a tree. There is invention and learning.

The teasing carafe, maddeningly lowered and raised, is untouchable. Objects with a mind of their own; a recurring Beckett theme. It all leads to resignation, not necessarily defeat, but maybe. With Beckett, there is always second-guessing. On to “Act Without Words II.”

Man A (the fine Hagen, again) and B (Geoff Pictor), in cocoons, the first, prodded to reluctantly emerge, slow-going, listless and moping, careless about appearance. The second, eager to face the day, aware of his surroundings, natty, daily repetition no problem. So, they rise, there’s activity, they rest, they repeat. There’s little meaningful significance, but attitude is everything.

When the giant prod that pokes them alive stops, will that be death? Beckett, as usual, is as wordless as these playlets.

Before intermission, dance does indeed attempt to explore and reinforce.

Choreographer Spendal and a second dancer, Megan Starnes, run through a floor exercise, highlighting mutual aid, extremities bending robotically, suggesting therapy. In a second segment, Spendal alone, spends a few highly physical everyman minutes of frustration, possibly wonder, perhaps progress. Laudable work, it’s tough sell.

The evening concludes with generous doses of Pinter’s usual plot staples: fear, paranoia, suspense and menace. “The Dumb Waiter,” a tale of two hit men suddenly wondering about their jobs – “Who cleans up our mess?” the edgy Gus (Pictor) worries – as they wait for an assignment in a dingy basement of an old cafe. Banal conversations gradually give way – as Pinter-speak always does – to threat and danger. Ben (the always cool and precise Keith Wharton) in-charge, turns snappish. When an ancient dumbwaiter squawks an order – an old Pinter device, a third party, an exterior, unexplained “force,” – nerves get raw and the story rapidly speeds to its last minutes of betrayal. “Dumb Waiter” could easily be terrifying and cruel. In director Hagen’s hands, it isn’t. But menace does quietly build and it can chill, traits supremely important in any Pinter work.

KTP and director Hagen have given much thought to this production. The dance sequence is laudable, but Beckett and Pinter hardly need another partner; a would-be Cockney accent is unintelligible for the first half of “Dumb Waiter.” A teaching moment is lost by not including program biographical notes on the playwrights.

But laurels to Kaleidoscope for a night of metaphors, allegories and analogies. It has turned a page. Risk and edge have become part of its resume.