note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark
Mrs. Barker........Erika K. Gaut
Young Man...........Mike O'Neil
Set Design by Valerie H. Weiss, Jason M. Reulet, Charles Snipes
Costume Design by Charles Snipes
Lighting Designed by Jim Barnes
Sound Designed by Matt Hillas
Production Stage Managers Catherine Reulet, Christianna Morgan
The new Koinonia Theatre has begun their residence at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church with a double-barrelled blast from the past: two classic cutting-edge one-acts from what we learned back then to call The Theater of The Absurd. The plays by Beckett and Albee are as different as possible from one another, well acted and carefully directed. They serve as excellent examples of this liberating approach to theater that made "off-Broadway" plays important and inevitable.
Samuel Beckett's Krapp is an old man, putting thoughts on tape with an old reel-to-reel recorder. Dishevelled, forgetful, and prone to dashes into the next room for a nip or three, he listens to a tape made by himself at half his age, snickering at the jaded naiveté of a youth pontificating on his youth now being behind him. All that unites the two men, ultimately, is one fond, physical memory.
As he progressed, Beckett became an expert in not-saying something; his silences became more eloquent than his dialogue; he personified the dictum that less is more. Director Jason M. Reulet has been blessed with an actor, Floyd Richardson, whose silences demand the audience's rapt attention. What he may be thinking remains enigmatic, and thus all the more fascinating, but there is never any doubt that something is going on inside that intently staring face. His body-language reads older than the actor is, with decay proceeding from indifference evidenced in a dusty desk, neglected bananas stuffed uneaten into a pocket with their skins kicked with indifferent care off the edge of the raised stage. In fact, at bottom all the unspoken work communicates a bit better than the spoken. Even in this early work, Beckett would much rather people wondered what he meant than knew.
In direct contrast with this brooding meditation, Edward Albee's "The American Dream" is all bright, clean, glittery surfaces. It's an-all-over-the-place sprawl of ideas and styles, as though he had absorbed all the European Absurdist experiments and, by using them all, could go beyond them. There are Ionesco-like games --- when "they" who are late actually show up, they are just one Mrs. Barker; asked if she'd like to take off her dress to make herself at home she does, and plays the entire show unaffected in her slip; an adopted child gets called a "bumBle of joy" and, all agree, its dismemberment and death was perfectly understandable since, well, it just didn't work out; Mrs. Barker can't think of why she's come, and rejects hints about people "like" Mommy and Daddy because those two actually Did what's hinted at.
But Albee adds to the mix. These obviously well-off middle-class Americans blurt bare truths about their relationships that polite society would repress. Grandma (Gladdy Matteosian) is impertinently snippy about attitudes of and about the old, can't remember that she's Mommy's and not Daddy's mother, and expects the middle-aged couple to call "The Van Man" to pack her off to a nursing home. But when the handsome Young Man (Mike O'Neil) arrives her whole attitude and body-language takes on a flirtatious sinuousity.
Director Valerie H. Weiss has set the show solidly in the '60s, with svelte miniskirts and pillbox hats, a photo of JFK on the mantelpiece, lacquered hair, upward mobility and middle-aged middle-class smug complacency comfortably in place --- all of this making the backbiting, however blandly blurted, all the more startling.
Deb Martin and Joseph Bukowski as Mommy and Daddy have the hardest roles, playing stereotypes that can be sniped at --- though showing their hollow insecurities at the same time. The early moments establishing this base-line are a bit shakey, since today's audience has no "Father Knows Best" background anymore. In a sense, the play has changed society enough to make it harder to relate to! And Daddy's hesitant masculinity looks today more cute than embarrassing.
Once Gladdy Matteosian's Grandma grumpily joins the scene, the real conflicts emerge. She is dotty and clear-eyed by turns, and hr snippy spunk is easy to relate to. Likewise, Erika K. Gaut's Mrs. Barker --- a well-kept, well-dressed, well-off dabbler in Women's Club do-good causes --- is a bright, bubbly, occasionally bewildered ball of perfectly-eyebrowed eager energy even more at ease in her underthings than her dress.
With the Young Man, however, Albee is pretty much through playing Absurdist games and after much bigger game. Mike O'Neil's bland acceptance of his admirable physique and easy-going relaxation overlay a solid sincerity with which he outlines his soul-less inability to feel real love and his off-hand willingness to do anything for money. Everyone responds to his obvious, indifferent sexuality, and it's easy to believe he will indeed pursue contacts on the coast for a movie career as a Rock Hudson like-a-look. As Grandma remarks, this is a comedy.
The Koinonia Theatre calls itself "the Boston area's newest non-Equity company." They will be in residence a year, and will begin in September an ambitious two-months-per-play program of "works which challenge performer and audience, raise big questions, and point toward the reality of truth, the rationality of hope, and the possibility of reconciliation." Their name comes out of Greek and means community. They bring talent, taste, and commitment to what was, some years ago, the home of The Cambridge Ensemble --- all of that is reason to rejoice.
Break a leg all.......