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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Los Angeles, January 30, 2017