Fictionalized Oppression Made Real: Ben Park Directs Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language

by Jake Curtis

I awoke on Saturday morning, November 15th, with what felt like a helicopter buzzing in my head.  My friend dragged me out the door and we went to grab breakfast at a crisp 9:00 AM.  After that, I meandered around, reveling in the sunlight and wondering what I was to do that day.  It was a nagging feeling until about noon when I messaged my friend Noah Park, asking him to meet me at Reynolds Grocery.  On the phone, he told me that he was playing music for a play at Walden Theatre that afternoon.  And then it hit me!

This past Saturday I had the opportunity to see the play, called Mountain Language, which was written by Harold Pinter and directed by Ben Park.  The play was written in 1988, after Pinter travelled to Turkey with Arthur Miller.  It focuses on the oppression of the mountain people and their language and the abuse and torture they face.  The power of language is absolutely essential within this play. Pinter was deeply affected by the war going on between Russia and Turkey while writing Mountain Language, but unlike some of his other plays, Mountain Language relies on open metaphor rather than an obvious message.  The oppression laid at the audience’s feet is ambiguous.  These events could be taking place in America, Great Britain; anywhere.  The audience is left sweaty, nervous, mouths gaping.

slantcultureIn an interview from One for the Road, Pinter says that, “In order to protect the realm, anything is justified.  It is also, however, true that many of the natural sadistic qualities, which we all possess, are given free rein in the play.  The audience felt fear- but what was it fear of?  Fear not only of being in the position of the given victim, but a fear also born of recognition of themselves as an interrogator.  Because think of the joy of having absolute power” (Pinter, 17).

As the audience, we are forced into the dark, into the terrifying mindsets of oppressor and the oppressed.  We are made faceless, just as the oppressors make their victims.

Many interesting choices were made by director Ben Park, and one of the most mesmerizing ones was the live score performed and written by Ben’s brother Noah.  When asked about the music Noah described the score as, “pretty ominous, definitely some Godspeed You! Black Emperor-influenced stuff but also a little noisy.  It’s dark, brooding and loud and I think it’s a little scary.”   Additionally, the lighting system was not utilized at all throughout the duration of the play.  Instead, the actors utilized small flashlights and one light bulb positioned under a monstrous ladder, in order to create an atmosphere that was both visually jarring and anxiety-inducing.  Mood and atmosphere are tightly controlled and maneuvered by the use of light and music.  Just as you are watching the two lovers embrace, they are heart-wrenchingly pulled apart as the lights flicker and the music cascades into distorted madness.

The cast consisted of Tony Pike as the Sergeant, Melinda Beck as The Young Woman/Sara Johnson, Natalie Fields as The Mother, Elliot Cornett as Guard, Eliot Zellers as Guard, Bryce Bashford as The Prisoner/Charlie and Ben Park as The Officer.  Each actor and actress was faced with a unique challenge:  act without a face.  Convey emotional turmoil and utter terror without being able to fully shed light on their facial disposition.  It was so surreal to watch, as if an image from Raymond Roussel’s worst nightmare (but still mind-boggling) had come to life right in front of you.

Cornett and Zellers as the Guards was an incredible experience to watch.  The grand, strange chaos they bring to the stage during some of the narrative’s crucial turning points is absolutely absurd to watch and oddly comforting.  That’s not to say the play isn’t utterly sad.  It’s hard to watch, and the things you’re seeing unfold are very difficult to stomach sometimes.  It’s oppression at its worst.  Running rampant for 40 minutes, this oppressive imagery screaming in front of you is abrasive, yet crucial.  These are things which people need to see; not the camera videos on major news channels, not the blurbs of information we only hear on the radio in the car, but the raw display of the horrors of oppression.  Tony Pike said on his role as The Sergeant, “it’s captivating to play the opposite and fun to play a person who’s not yourself.  The challenge is definitely there to commit to that person.  It’s difficult.” Pike commands the stage with his presence, looming in the dark and booming orders out.  His acting was perhaps some of my favorite of the play, as his role, along with Ben Park as The Officer, is some of the hardest stuff to see during the play’s duration.  The wickedness of these roles is mentally-trying, but so very captivating to watch.

The Mother, played by Natalie Fields, was another highpoint of the play.  Her role calls mostly for silence (due to political protest, as she is not allowed to speak her own language), until parts where she is under extreme duress, where she begins to yelp out, “I have bread!  I have apples!  I have bread!”  These moments are heart-wrenching; that only a few words stand between the fates of this woman and her imprisoned son is devastating.  Fields’s emotional investment in the role really shines throughout.

Melinda Beck, as Sarah Johnson, and Bryce Bashford, as Charlie Johnson/The Prisoner, are the centerpiece of the narrative.  Bryce Bashford is beaten down, dragged across the floor, and sentenced to moments of pure, free happiness until the guards return to continue his torture.  And this is all while Sarah and The Mother are forced to watch a loved one be emotionally and physically destroyed right in front of them.  All of this for using illegal language.  Bashford does an excellent job in bringing his Prisoner’s pains to life.  Many a time I was brought to tears watching him perform instances of such awful circumstances.  Beck reciprocates this pain with Sarah Johnson’s undying love and support.  Sarah Johnson is willing to put everything on the line, including her body, in order to save the person she loves.  The word tragic would not be proper enough to describe what the audience voyeuristically gazes at during Mountain Language.  Finally, Ben Park’s crazed, mad-with-power Officer is another highlight.  As he saunters around the stage, threatening this and questioning that, chills are sent up the spine.  This man exudes confidence and power while embodying the horrors of oppression.  “Ben takes responsibility for violent imagery”, Beck said before the show, and this responsibility was evident.  The passion shown by every actor was felt coming off of the stage, and not only that but the responsibility of what they were showing the audience was felt too.

Mountain Language is playing this week at the Slant Culture Festival hosted at Walden Theatre.  The Walden Theatre Alumni Company is presenting Mountain Language, and make sure to catch one of their shows coming up this week, either Thursday November 20th at 9PM or the following Friday, November 21st at 11PM.  I highly recommend everyone go see this play.  However, as we will be addressing below in an interview with director/actor Ben Park, The Slant Culture Festival will not be the last time to see Park’s production of Mountain Language.  For more information about Slant, there are links at the end of the article.  Mountain Language is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is something that you must see.  Its display of the power of language and oppression is parallel to what we are watching take place all around us.  These are not invisible issues.  They need to be discussed and thought about.

Here, I got the chance to ask director and actor Ben Park a few questions about his role in the play, and what he hoped to accomplish through presenting it.  Keep reading and check it out!

LouKY:  Why the choice to include live scoring/music?

Ben Park:  The show is very ambiguous.  Music helps to capture the show’s atmosphere.

LouKY:  What was it like getting into the Officer’s mindset?

BP:  He truly doesn’t care for these people.  Not out of hatred, but more from systematic hate.  It’s what’s been taught by the regime.  I’m not the regime.  I’m a part of it. Like a puppet.  Who killed the first Jew or gypsy in the Holocaust?  Taking in the years of violence and oppression, what would I have done?

LouKY:  What was your fascination with Pinter?

BP:  [Mountain Language] is a very important play to do right now.  It’s hard to watch this play and that’s why we do it.  People need to see it.  This is happening all around us.  It’s not just us.  It’s everybody.  They need to see this, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.

LouKY:  Have you wanted to do this play for a while?

BP:  Since March I’ve wanted to do this play.

LouKY:  Why did you choose to do without the theatre’s lighting system?

BP:  From day one, the choice about lighting was set.  We weren’t going to use the theatre’s lighting system and wanted to maintain a minimalist approach.  So, light as metaphor.  With the lighting, there was an element of spectacle, but it really worked to create an atmosphere of oppression.

LouKY:  Do you have any plans for Mountain Language after its run is finished at Slant?

BP:  I’m definitely planning on taking it in new directions.  There might be interest in filming it as well.

Mountain Language is Ben Park’s first attempt at a nonlocal playwright.  It marks the 8th play he’s directed and the first one with live scoring.  Previously he’s directed Lydia and Prometheus Io, both written by Dakota Parobek.  At the last Slant Festival, Ben directed Play:  A Comedy.  Be sure to stop by The Slant Culture Festival this week, at Walden Theatre located on 1123 Payne Street, on November 20th at 9M or November 21st at 11PM to catch the last showings of Mountain Language.

Slant Culture Festival website

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A short interview with Harold Pinter: