‘Birthday Party’ brings expanded cast to stage

Laura Testino

Possibilities may seem endless when a group of people unite for a celebration. Playwright Harold Pinter explores some of the most unconventional of these possibilities in his play “The Birthday Party,” which will be performed by The University of Alabama’s Theatre and Dance Department in the Allen Bales Theatre this week.

Matt Davis, a second–year MFA directing candidate, directed the production. Davis said directing a play from the theater of the absurd offered him a memorable experience, as he was able to lead his cast through the ambiguous nature of the play and to challenge them to think critically.

“It’s a pleasure to work in the college, at the collegiate level, directing, because it’s rare that you get to have the opportunity to do works like this,” he said.

“The Birthday Party” features six characters, allowing Davis to expand his cast size to include additional understudies while still keeping it small, something he said he considers to be a luxury.

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“I love working with the understudies with a small cast like this because they bring flavor and nuance to their character development that helps me gain different and new aspects on the character and how I interpret the show,” Davis said. “Each person has a personal voice, and they come to a project with their own ideas.”

Carrie Poh, a second–year MFA acting candidate, plays Meg, a 60-year-old British woman, in the play. She and her understudy, Kelly Kohlman, have collaborated with one another to understand the character’s interesting interpretation on the universal theme of control.

“Everyone else is trying to establish control on a very large scale, in almost sort of life or death terms,” Poh said. “But to [Meg], control is fixing people’s breakfasts in the morning and making sure that the house is clean, and knowing that she owns the key to the cornflakes is a very important thing to her.”

Kohlman, a sophomore majoring in musical theatre and business, said she has found working with the small cast on this production for her debut on the UATD stage to be an enriching experience.

“As I understood where [Davis] was coming from with this play, I understood how to put my own voice into the character. And while I did look to [Poh] a lot at times for her process, it was cool that I learned how to make my own choices in something that is so strange,” Kohlman said.

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Throughout the rehearsal process, Davis led the actors from a sense of realism toward the absurdist elements of the play. Kohlman said she believes the nature of the play allows audiences to have a personalized experience.

“[‘The Birthday Party’] is very ambiguous, and I think that everyone who sees it might have a different take on it, or a different emotional reaction, but it’ll definitely evoke a strong reaction,” Kohlman said.

Brandon Kalusa, a sophomore majoring in musical theatre, is an understudy for the role of Goldberg, played by Jordan DeWitt. While developing his character, Kalusa said he readily accepted guidance from both DeWitt and Davis.

“Well, the best advice anyone can give you is, what [Davis] always says, which is to be as honest as you can,” Kalusa said. “It’s just a good reinforcement to remember that you’ve got to be as honest as possible and stray away from the term ‘acting.’ You’re not acting, you’re being.”

DeWitt, a junior majoring in theatre, said his role is one of the most difficult he has ever had the chance to play. Throughout the rehearsal process, he worked closely with other members of the cast to understand the character relationships and particular nuances, making the journey a rewarding one.

“This experience has been educational in a way acting classes aren’t,” he said. “I’ve been in a show every semester since I’ve been here, but this has been one of the most powerful, rewarding and rich experiences I’ve had on the stage, ever.”

Davis said he hopes audiences see these character relationships and the honesty each actor brings to the stage, despite the somewhat unusual circumstances of the play.

“I think the core of great theater is the actor’s ability to act but, more importantly, react to one another,” Davis said. “And that’s where you find honesty. That’s where you find the truth. If you find an honest reaction within each other, then you’re going to present something on the stage that is truthful. And if it’s truthful, you’re doing your job. Even if it’s absurd.”

“The Birthday Party” will be performed in the Allen Bales Theatre from April 7 to 12 at 7:30 p.m. and on April 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available in the box office or online at ua.tix.com.

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