Mention Gandalf, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, Dr. Manhattan and Frankenstein's monster and the average person is extremely unlikely to put Harold Pinter in the same frame.
Yet that is exactly what Berkeley Repertory Theatre is doing with the Broadway-bound production of "No Man's Land" opening in previews this week.
Patrick Stewart portrays a successful litterateur, replete with bodyguard (Shuler Hensley) and amanuensis — that's secretary to the rest of us, or "the 'Do Boy' as my brothers and I were affectionately called when we were kids," says Billy Crudup of his role. (He also offers "screwed-up" as a rhyming option on his name.)
Into their regimented lives comes a struggling poet (Ian McKellen) after a typically obscure, Pinter-ersque purpose.
Previously, Crudup and Hensley knew each other casually through golf and Broadway, but had never worked together. This production also marks each Tony-winning actor's first Pinter experience.
Hensley credits director Sean Mathias with sage advice on presenting the much-revered playwright's sometimes confounding work. "He said that we've got to forget the author. It made so much sense, because if you have 'Pinter' in your head it's really difficult."
Both actors talk about the fragmented nature of the play and how memory — what is real and what is imagined or manufactured — is affected by age and illness. Crudup also has a specific concept of a no man's land as a place bereft of the signs of humanity.
"Roads, houses, populations, they give us a way to navigate, as do the things that we take for granted in the way we communicate and socialize and really go about our lives," Crudup says. "So we're talking about an area that is unoccupied by any of that. There are no clues about how to proceed in a no man's land. So part of the exploration of this play is how do we occupy unoccupied territory."
The complexity and poetic nature of the writing, which Crudup calls "opaque," forces actors and audience to stay in the present moment.
Hensley agrees. "Just when you think you know, 'Here it comes, I know what's going to happen,'" he says, snapping his fingers, "something completely different happens. So you really can't anticipate."
What the pair can anticipate is the ballyhoo that will surround their co-stars once performances begin — though the buzz has not invaded the rehearsal space, which Hensley likens to a classroom of eager pupils.
"They have some of the greatest theatrical credentials that two living men can have," Crudup adds. "This is as much their milieu as being giant movie stars."
IF YOU GONo Man's Land
Where: Roda Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Previews begin 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 or 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays; closes Aug. 31
Tickets: $50 to $135 (subject to change)
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org