Like Sheet Music: Actor Marco Barricelli Talks Pinter

By Elspeth Sweatman

Staccato. Threat-filled. Intelligent. Universal. These are just a few of the words that A.C.T. actors Graham Beckel, Anthony Fusco, and Melissa Smith have used to describe Harold Pinter’s work. With the opening of The Birthday Party, we reached out to a fellow veteran of the Geary stage, Marco Barricelli, who plays McCann and previously acted in A.C.T.'s productions of Celebration and The Room (2001), to get an inside perspective on his impressions of and approaches to the playwright’s unique aesthetic. 

McCann (Marco Barricelli) tears a newspaper into strips as Stanley
(Firdous Bamji) looks on in A.C.T.'s production of
The Birthday Party. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What first comes to mind when you think of Pinter’s plays?

His writing is very self-assured. The remarkable thing to me is that he seemed to hatch that way. With other playwrights, you look back at the beginning of their careers and you can see that there’s talent there, but they need to develop it, mature it, hone it. There’s a gradual rise to writing incredible work. With Pinter, he was born fully formed. If you took The Room [1957] and Celebration [1999] and told someone who didn’t know Pinter that he wrote one at the beginning of his career and one at the end, she wouldn’t know the difference from the writing.

How do you approach a Pinter script in rehearsal?

The script of a Pinter play is like sheet music. There are dashes, ellipses, pauses, and silences. If you follow these notations in the script, then you can play it. In my experience with Pinter, I’ve found that the way to rehearse it is to honor those notations, even if you’re not sure yet what they mean. And by the simple fact of repeating those rhythms and silences, you will see what the moment is about.

You have to play the moment purely for what it is—What do I need? What is getting in the way of my need? What is my strategy to get around it?—and not spell it out for the audience. It’s essential that the actors and the director resist the impulse to explain it. I want them to lean into the material and figure out for themselves what is going on.

What do you enjoy most about Pinter's writing?

Part of the joy of Pinter’s work is that you don’t get to have it spelled out. And isn’t it cool to be presented with all the questions and not have any of the answers, to let the answers come to you where they will?

Pinter is known for not providing much exposition—why do you think that is?

He’s not interested in explaining himself in his plays. And the man was that way too. I once had dinner with him, his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, and Tom Stoppard in London. He leaned into me at one point in the dinner and said, “I’ve written a poem. Would you like to hear it?” Of course I said yes. He stared at me for a few seconds—seemed like an eternity—and then said, “And it goes on. And it goes on, and on it goes . . . And it goes on, and on, and on; and on it goes . . . And it goes on, and on . . .” This was extended for some time and I was unsure what to think. Is this a joke? Is this serious? Finally, Lady Antonia piped in and said, “Oh Harold, I thought you were talking about our marriage.” And everybody laughed. That moment of not being quite sure of what the hell is going on, but at the same time being totally fascinated, is something that is essential in Pinter’s work.

The Birthday Party runs through February 4 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Pinter from an actor’s perspective? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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