Imago leaps into a new affair

Jerry Mouawad adds a fresh take on Pinter's "The Lover" to the company's hopping schedule

Jerry Mouawad doesn’t much care for stillness, unless it’s preparing for a pounce. Like his partner Carol Triffle, who founded Imago Theatre with him almost 35 years ago, he’s a theatrical perpetual-motion machine. And like the costumed creatures in their hit family show “Frogz,” he pauses only to gather energy and tension before another leap.

Source and Gilpin in "The Lover." Imago Theatre.

Sorce and Gilpin in “The Lover.” Imago Theatre.

Right now, Imago’s jumping all over the place:

  • Tears of Joy, the noted puppet theater, has moved into the Imago space on the near East Side, and the two companies, both known for their highly inventive visual approaches to theater, are busily working out the logistics of cohabitation.
  • Mouawad’s preparing to direct Allen Nause, the former artistic director at Artists Rep and one of the best actors in town, in a February/March production of Harold Pinter’s modernist classic “The Caretaker.”
  • He and Triffle are deep in the process of a new family-audience touring show, “The Elastics,” that’ll debut in May in Portland. It’s being conceived as something radically different from the long-running “Frogz,” with dancing, and some sections performed without masks, and a key prop provided by designer Michael Curry of “The Lion King” and many other visual extravaganzas.
  • They’re also developing a second major new visual production – “La Belle,” a new, and very different, Imago version of “Beauty and the Beast,” set to open a year from now. Triffle and Mouawad went back to Madame de Villeneuve’s original published version, from 1740, and “discovered that Cocteau and Disney told only half the story.” Expect to see the part that didn’t make it into the movies.

So in the middle of all this hubbub, which is more or less business as usual for Imago, Mouawad’s taken on a lover.

That would be “The Lover,” Pinter’s 1962 one-act play about the matrimonial and sexual complications of (depending on how you look at it) a married couple, a wife and her lover, and a husband and his mistress. Think of “The Lover,” which opens on Friday, December 6, as an amuse-bouche before Mouawad’s deeper dive into Pinterland with “The Caretaker.” But don’t mistake it for a trifle: it has gristle on its bone, and a lot of knots in its narrative.

In a way, “The Lover,” which stars Anne Sorce and Jeffrey Gilpin, calls on the illusionary skills Mouawad and Triffle have honed over their years of physical and mask theater, seeming to create something out of nothing.

“It had to be really low-budget,” Mouawad said a couple of weeks ago over coffee at Grendel’s, the little coffee shop and gathering spot just up the block and across East Burnside Street from Imago. “We threw it in at the last minute, because I wanted to do it.”

“The Lover” clocks in at a little under an hour, but it’s still Pinter, which means it’s a twisted and multiply knotted hour, and for a director or actor it benefits from a long gestation. “When I first read it I was amused by it,” Mouawad said. “This was two years ago. And then as I dived into it, it kept opening up and opening up and opening up. It’s really about all men and women.”

Besides stating for the record that “The Lover” has a man and a wife, and the wife has a lover and the husband might, too, I don’t want to get into the plot: it’s far better for you to discover it for yourself. Simply know that Mouawad considers the play to be in “game-playing mode, continual friction,” and he’s come to think of it as “in a way, a celebration of marriage.” And know, further, that Pinter isn’t dropping a lot of clues about what it all means. Mouawad ran across this piece of inscrutable advice from the author: “ ‘They’re just in the room, and the play speaks for itself.’ Well, OK, but it doesn’t really help me as a director.”

Imago's "The Elastics," a sneak peek. Imago Theatre.

Imago’s “The Elastics,” a sneak peek. Imago Theatre.

In a way, that’s Mouawad’s wheelhouse: something inexplicable, but structured so you can find a pathway through it. He’s recently completed a series of five plays he calls “operas without words,” relying on dance and movement and design for their emotional and theatrical impact. The idea is to bring just enough of the explicit into an implicit world. “I wouldn’t call this play linear,” Mouawad says of “The Lover,” “but I wouldn’t call it nonlinear, either. I don’t know what you call it. You call it Pinter.”

The actors came into rehearsal off-book, with their lines already memorized, and then they and Mouawad dove into the philosophical and practical possibilities of the little world Pinter had created. So many possibilities, Mouawad stressed: “We picked a possible interpretation of how this particular couple got to this particular position. I’ve chosen one (interpretation) that I thought had the highest risk for the characters.”

“The Lover” comes in on the adult side of what Mouawad wryly refers to as Imago’s odd little business plan: make your profits on the big family-oriented shows, and let them help pay for more experimental and esoteric work, from Triffle’s oddly comic escapades to Mouawad’s wordless operas and reimagined classics such as his tilting-set version of Sartre’s “No Exit.” But the plan isn’t really much different from most American ballet companies’ economic reliance on “The Nutcracker.” And Imago’s secret is that it takes “Frogz” and its other family-oriented shows very seriously, even when they rely on light comedy for their effect. The family shows work partly because they, too, are experimental (Triffle and Mouawad both have deep background in the methods of the mime and physical-theater master Jacques Lecoq), and they never talk down. Each segment of a family show is the result of long and sometimes excruciating development: “We put them under a really critical microscope. In other words, a five-minute piece might take two years to develop.”

Mouawad hopes the approach he and his actors have taken on “The Lover” will open up other of Pinter’s multiple possibilities. And, he said, they discovered in rehearsal that the possibility they chose works well for the first two-thirds of the play but not for the rest. So at that point, they switch gears: “The final third needs a different conceit. So I came up with one that was even higher-risk.”

Well, why not? It’s the Imago way.

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