Monday, January 30, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Send in the Clowns" (on five short plays by Samuel Beckett: Act Without Words II, Come and Go, Catastrophe, Footfalls, and Krapp's Last Tape)


little catastorophes
by Douglas Messerli

Samuel Beckett Act Without Words II, Come and Go, Catastrophe, Footfalls, and Krapp’s Last Tape (Beckett5) / Los Angeles, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Sunday, January 29, 2017 / I attended the production with Pablo Capra and Paul Sand

The other day, upon the news of British actor John Hurt’s death, I told my occasional theater-going friend, Pablo Capra, that I had already seen two of Hurt’s performances of the great Beckett play, Krapp’s Last Tape, one in a film version of the Beckett on Film series by Atom Egoyan and a second time, live at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California—both of which I had reviewed. 
      The very next day, we were planning to attend another local production of five short Beckett plays, including Krapp’s Last Tape, at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, and he questioned me why might I want to see it again. I told him that, well, one simply could not get enough of Beckett, and that, even though I’d thought Hurt’s performance the highest pinnacle of that work, I’d probably be going back to Beckett plays, of every sort, for the rest of my life.
      I still feel this, despite the fact that the Odyssey production of some of Beckett’s short plays, including Act Without Words II, Come and Go, Catastrophe, Footfalls, and, yes again, Krapp’s Last Tape was rather a mixed bag.

      Let me begin by commending all of the actor’s and the theater’s abilities and enthusiasm in reviving these wonderful plays. That is, in fact, what brings me to the marvelous Odyssey many times. Their mix of classic plays and new theater works is one of the reasons why the Los Angeles theater scene is so very vibrant and unpredictable, and which allows me to see good and even excellent theater without always having to trot off to New York or to other cities.
      But Beckett is difficult. First, he is so extraordinarily particularized. What you might describe as his scenarios for theater, especially—despite their seeming abstractness—demanding a kind of preciseness of sets, costumes, and actions that might only be compared to the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who details his directions endlessly. Indeed, often there are more theatrical instructions to Beckett’s works than actual words. 
      The other difficulty about Beckett’s plays is that, although they are often about impossibly lost and frustrated souls, his figures are also clowns, fools, and even idiots who demand that his characters not be played with deep dramatic gestures. The very abstractness, for example, of Act Without Words II, in which two are buried in bags, each, one by one, poked into life, is a challenge to any actor who desires to create a character. In this production, Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan, each podded by Norbert Weisser into temporary being, met with varying success. 
     Abelew presented his figure as a kind of tragic sad-sack, a bit like Nagg in Beckett’s Endgame, dramatizing the character in a way that, alas, made him more a existentially troubled figure rather than a merely morose one. Hogan, as the kind of happy-to-be-alive-again reincarnation, was much more successful—but that just may have to do with the fact that she is a more outsized and joyful figure. 
      I think director Enda Hughes got this short work more precisely in his narrow framed film with Marcello Magni and Pat Kinenave, which I saw after on the internet, where the characters, moving with a kind of silent-film jitteriness, came to life in more a Butser Keatonesque manner than Abelew’s and director Ron Sossi’s exaggerated counter-hero.   

      Far more successful was Come and Go, a play originally dedicated to my acquaintance, the British publisher John Calder, with—in this production—the three actresses, Diana Cignoni, Sheelagh Culler, and, again, Hogan, who, a bit more sparkly dressed (particularly given their shoes, designed by Audrey Eisner), seemed to have retained some of their charming youth, which had once connected them in their early school days, despite their now gossip-mongering whispers (never heard by the audience) about what appear to be unknown failures in their life and their current marriages. I far preferred it, in fact, to the John Crow film, with the more dowdily dressed Paoli Dionisotti, Anna Massey, and Sian Phillips. For this play, Beckett even provided a drawing of how, at the end, the characters need to entwine their hands in a symbolic Celtic knot, demonstrating just how specific the playwright was with regard to the way he wanted his works to be performed.
      Castrostophe, also starring Abelew, Hogan, and Weisser was also pretty loyal to Beckett’s instructions. This play, often described as one of the playwright’s most political works—and originally dedicated to the imprisoned Czech playwright and later President,  Václav Havel—is even, in part, about how the playwright’s intentions are too often distorted by the directors. Here, a living emblem of sorts, a kind of figure that appears might be right out of the Holocaust, is used as the subject of a soon-to-be-performed work in which the Director’s Assistant is equally subjected to absurd instructions of how to dress and undress, to whiten and light a living human being, as if he were simply a prop. Here Abelew, with graceful agility, lifts his head in a kind of final triumph against the directorial dogmatism, demonstrating a subtle revolutionary expression that denigrates the “catastrophe” (in this meaning, “an act of defiance”) in which he finds himself. And again, this short playlet seemed far preferable to David Mament’s transformed rendition in his Beckett of Film version—even though it’s hard to imagine his better cast than Harold Pinter as the Director and John Gielgud (in his final performance) as the living statue.

     Diana Cigoni performed remarkably well in Footfalls, a play about a young daughter ritualistically pacing outside her dying mother’s door. But frankly, this 1975 play is simply not one of my favorite Beckett works. Perhaps it’s simply the metronomic structure of the play, the nine steps forward and the nine creaks back that make it seem, quite literally, a kind of creaking monologue, even though the “never have done” pattern and the endless dying “viduity” of the mother has a great deal in common with the author’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Yes, it’s a musical work, and the patterns of language he uses here are often quite beautiful, but, in the end, it all seems somehow much to do about nothing. The woman, like Krapp, simply might have made more of her life out playing lacrosse, her childhood sport.
       During the intermission I discussed these plays with my other theater-going companion of the evening, improvisatory comedian Paul Sand, and we both agreed that, despite the noble intentions of these productions and, my recognition of the remarkable directorial work of Sossi (I’ve now seen dozens of his productions) that Beckett was simply better with a lighter hand. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I had seen John Hurt do Krapp twice. 
     I truly admire the acting of Norbert Weisser, having seen him in my friend John O’Keefe’s Nazi-period play, Times Like These. And, given the difficulties of the work, I admire him for attempting the nearly impossible Beckett monologue, indeed a brave undertaking. 
      But Krapp, unlike Weisser’s interpretation, is not a failed lover angry with his past, but is, like so many of Beckett’s figures, an absolute fool, a man who could only bother to gather up his love for a single night’s pleasure.  And as beautiful as that may have been, he is not a conventional hero, but an absolute idiot, another clown whom Beckett even forces, temporarily, to fall upon a banana peel—the banana being, apparently, his favorite and perhaps only—other than his endless draughts of whiskey—sustenance.  
     Krapp, like his name, is not a secret Marlon Brando: no brutal beauty like Stanley Kowalski or even a “former contender” such as Terry Malloy of On the Waterfront, so there’s no way to act from your heart as if you were a student of Method Acting. Krapp is a figure of his own imagination, of his memory; and playing him requires a very precise precision: open a drawer, pile up the “spools,” eat a banana, and listen, respond, drink, and listen. Impulsive anger, fits of sentimentality are pointless in his world. He has already died before the play has begun.
      All of this is not to say that I do not commend these actors and their valiant performances. And I truly recommend everyone run to seem them. As I’ve already stated, Beckett requires constant viewing. If I had no other plays, movies, operas, and dances to attend to in the next few weeks (as, somewhat regretfully, I do) I’d return without reservation.

Los Angeles, January 30, 2017

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