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Role Playing: Bill Norris pulled the seedy bum in ‘The Caretaker’ from a place within himself

Submitted by on Mar 13, 2012 – 4:56 pm

Interview: In Pinter’s dark play, Norris portrays a threadbare, manipulative interloper who pits brothers against each other as he angles for a cozy setup. At Writers’ Theatre through March 25.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The scruffy creature with darting eyes who calls himself Davies looks like his last bed was a cardboard box on the street. He is the elusive but palpably real character at the core of Harold Pinter’s play “The Caretaker,” now on the boards at Writers’ Theatre, and he’s brought to wheedling, calculating life in a masterful piece of acting by Bill Norris.

A veteran of the Chicago theater scene whose work here dates back to the 1970s, Norris says playing such a low-life as the parasitic Davies was just a matter of tapping into something within himself.

“We all possess those qualities of lover, killer, panhandler,” he says, “but you have to acknowledge it. It’s my responsibility to draw on the dark side and let the character come through. Davies isn’t just manipulative, he’s stupidly bigoted. He’s also lazy and self-delusional.”

We meet Davies, a weathered and frail old man, in the low-rent London apartment of brothers Mick and Aston, the latter a slow-witted fellow who has rescued the bum from a beating and brought him home. As the stranger lays aggressive claim to his new settlement, the brothers debate what to do with him. Aston (Anish Jethmalani) remains protective of his new charge, but Mick (Kareem Bandealy) suspects the old guy’s motives and mockingly offers him the position of household caretaker.

“I don’t think Davies is sympathetic at all, and I don’t choose to play him that way,” says Norris. “He’s greedy and inept. Even at the end, when he’s trying to get one more chance, he’s blaming someone else for his own shortcomings. It’s always someone else’s fault.”

In a recurring leitmotif reminiscent of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Davies refers periodically to papers awaiting him at a place called Sidcup. If only he could get to Sidcup, he could prove his substance and worth. And tomorrow that’s just where he’s going. Tomorrow. Meanwhile, he must fend off Mick while ingratiating himself deeper with Aston. Davies is a master of angles.

“Sidcup is his be-all and end-all,” Norris says. “There are two ways to get what you want: earn it or be given it. Davies would get to Sidcup if somebody would take him there, but he doesn’t have the strength, purpose or hunger to get there on his own. We all have goals and fantasies and we work toward that end. I keep looking on my mantle for my Oscar.”

Of the three characters in Pinter’s mix, it’s the bum who might at one time have had the best chance to make something of himself, the actor says.

“Davies is interesting because of his lost potential, the difference between what he seems and what he could have been if he had used the same energy and imagination in a more constructive way.  He has the gifts of persuasion. Aston is limited for medical reasons and not likely to evolve. Mick, by economic circumstances and reasons of racial bias, is stuck in his locale. But Davies could easily have made a different choice when he was younger. Now he’s an old dog whose habits are self-destructive.”

The textured naturalism of Norris’ performance is only enhanced by the extreme intimacy of Writers’ tiny venue in which viewers literally line the walls.

“It’s like doing Pinter in your bathroom,” he says. “I’ve played in spaces that size before, but the difference here is that the audience is basically on stage with you. The protective fourth wall is simply gone. I have to picture the people around me as part of the detritus Aston has collected.  I can hear people whispering about what they think is wrong with Aston. Some sit with their mouths open in rapt attention. Others find the play hysterically funny right up to the end. But they don’t throw me off. Oddly enough, it’s not disturbing.”

In more direct input from audience members, at post-performance talk-backs, Norris has heard some remarkable perspectives on a play that’s hard to pin down.

“They always have a lot of questions about the brothers,” he says. “Some think the two brothers are only in Davies’ mind. I would never have come up with that interpretation.

“But the play is open to many interpretations. No one is declaring what it’s about. It’s like three witnesses to a murder. You get a composite sketch from bits of dialogue, and a lot of unreliable information at best.”

Norris also recalls one man who said he couldn’t shake the feeling of paranoia: “He knew something was going to happen and it was almost too intense for comfort. It’s an intense experience for us, too.”

For that fine edge of tension, Norris credits the liberating work of director Ron OJ Parson.

“I want to see that a director knows the script even better than I do,” says the actor, who also has done his own share of directing. “Ron came in not only knowing the script cold, but he also brought a sense of history and of what was going on socially in Britain at the time. It was his idea to cast Kareem and Anish against type, knowing that these East Asians would heighten the sense of racism inherent in Davies. We’re very much into 1962 when the play was first produced.

“Ron never told us what to say or think or do. He was the guider apart who stands away. That was his strength. He let us work out our relationships as best we could.”

That process still hasn’t stopped, says Norris. “We talk in the dressing room every night – about everything but the show. We let that happen on stage. They’ve never let me down. The blocking, the words may be the same, but it’s the living human being across from me that makes the thing so vibrant at each performance.

“No one is consciously trying to change things. We’ve just become more comfortable with the characters, not with the play. This is one show you don’t do by rote.”

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Photo captions and credits: Home page, top and upper right: Bill Norris. Upper left: Mick (Kareem Bandealy, left) confronts Davies (Bill Norris). Lower left: From left, Bill Norris as Davies, Kareem Bandealy as Mick and Anish Jethmalani as Aston. (Production photos by Michael Brosilow).

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