Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Voices in the Dark: Three Plays by Samuel Beckett"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Samuel Beckett
directed by David J. Dowling


Krapp … George Saulnier III


Opener … Brian Quint
Voice … Jason Myatt
Music: David J (slinky, ass’s jaw bone); Joyce Rooks (cello, programming)


Listener … Jason Myatt or Brian Quint
Reader … Brian Quint or Jason Myatt

In BLOOD AND THUNDER, his biography about Charles A. Taylor, the so-called Father of American Melodrama, Dwight Taylor writes:

“My father had no patience with the plays which were being written towards the end of his life, and he soon gave up trying to read them. His complaint was that he had no idea whom he was supposed to like or dislike.

““I never left my audience in doubt for one solitary second,” he would declare emphatically, pounding his fist on the table. “Within a few minutes of the curtain’s rising I would have a backdrop lowered depicting the exterior of a fashionable restaurant. … An old lady is standing in the street outside the restaurant, selling violets. Out of the entrance comes the villain. He is in full evening dress, wearing an opera cape and top hat and smoking a cigar. The old lady rushes forward and holds out her tray. “Buy some violets, buy some violets,” she asks eagerly. The villain looks down at her in disdain. ‘Get away from me, you old hag!’ he exclaims, and takes a swipe at her with his cane.”

“Here my father would pause, and fix me with an eagle eye to see whether I realized the enormity of the offense. Then he would strike the table and bawl in a voice of thunder, “For the rest of the evening, the audience is going to HATE that man!””

No doubt Mr. Taylor would have been bored by Mr. Chekhov and horrified by Mr. Beckett, the two men who changed the face of Western playwriting --- Mr. Chekhov with his turning melodrama’s blacks and whites to tragicomic grays and having the Big Moments take place offstage and Mr. Beckett going even further and eliminating conventional narrative altogether in shorter and shorter ambiguous works. America has come to experience what the Russian and the Irishman felt, decades ago --- moral laxness and the soul’s alienation (much of what America was originally built on is now sadly nostalgic) --- thus it is not surprising to find their works being regularly produced in this country and continuing to influence new generations of playwrights, making Mr. Taylor spin in his grave all the faster.

The Devanaughn Theatre at the Piano Factory is fast becoming Boston’s Little Theatre That Can, taking numerous risks and often landing on its feet; it concludes its season of Irish playwrights with VOICES IN THE DARK: THREE PLAYS BY SAMUEL BECKETT, directed in a trancelike clarity by David J. Dowling. The most familiar piece is the one-man KRAPP’S LAST TAPE; the others are the radio play CASCANDO (1961) and, most hauntingly, OHIO IMPROMPTU (1980) which, if you love Mr. Beckett’s bleak, spare vision, is mandatory viewing.

In KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, an elderly man named Krapp sits at a table in a basement, listening and reacting to his autobiographical spools of tape played on a tape-recorder, in particular, Spool Five from Box Three, in which the audience hears his thoughts at the age of 39. Krapp bitterly rails against both his recorded youth and his old age; the quiet little bombshell comes in the spool’s final lines, when the 39-year-old Krapp declares: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” George Saulnier III is impressive enough as Krapp; I say “enough” because he is still a young(ish) man beneath his make-up and must rely upon impersonation rather than paint with a well-filled palette but his observations are shrewd, subtle and consistent, in speech and in silence: his Krapp is not a clown but a burly little working-class fellow with an impaired sense of balance; he quickly shuffles on his toes as if to catch up with the heaviness of his head before it hits the ground. I have seen Mr. Saulnier on other stages where he rested on his own premature laurels but here he has burrowed into becoming a character actor and if he can continue to do so without stopping to admire his own efforts he will, in time, be impressive, period.

CASCANDO and OHIO IMPROMPTU are wide open for interpretation. Since the former is a radio play, Mr. Dowling stages it in the dark with the audience hearing voices and music through the sound system. I interpret CASCANDO as Mr. Beckett’s attempt to show the stop-start process of Writer’s Block with a Voice repeatedly trying to complete the same story but cannot --- amusingly, his hero begins crouched in mud, then in sand, then on rocks --- it’s “interesting”, all right, but wouldn’t it have been better to either have an actor mime out the trains of thought or to show a filmed montage of back-and-forth imagery a la Monty Python? If you’re going to take a radio script and place it on a stage, you might as well go with what the latter has to offer; otherwise, you’re just reading to your audience, well, in the dark…. OHIO IMPROMPTU (named after Ohio State University where it was first performed) is the most challenging piece of all: two men in black with shoulder-length hair sit at a table that has a black hat on it. The men mirror one another, down to each resting his right hand against his right temple. The Reader, with book, drones out a tale of tragic loss; the Listener, eyes cast down, rhythmically pounds the table whenever he wants a passage repeated. Upon completing the story, the Reader closes the book and the two men slowly look up at each other as the lights fade. Is the tale autobiographical? Is the Reader the “tragic loss” now come back to comfort the mourning Listener? Are they one and the same man? Never before have I gone through so many reactions during such a short play: amusement (“The old boy’s got to be kidding, this time…”), anger (“This is CRAP!”), bewilderment (“Well, what IS it about?”) and, once I stopped trying to wrap a narrative around it, acceptance. Perhaps ‘tis best to view OHIO IMPROMPTU as a dream, a hallucination; one that makes perfect sense in the subconscious but turns silly when pinned down with words. Mr. Beckett is so masterly with his theatre images that they stay with you even when his words to do not; you will long remember Jason Myatt and Brian Quint, who are solemn hoots in their blonde tresses, with each spoken word, each pound from a fist, laying yet another invisible brick around them, sealing them in eternal silence.

Mr. Dowling, as have others before him, has reinvented the Devanaughn’s interior by moving the rows of chairs to the center of the room and at an angle, leaving the plays to spin out in the corner near the black-curtained windows; David J’s accompanying music mostly resembles a snoring harmonica and a wide-awake Slinky (I gather that this is the “Beckett” sound). VOICES IN THE DARK is recommended entertainment for those who travel without maps and for those who are willing to toss theirs away. In the best of all possible theatre worlds, this minimal Event would be balanced against a red-blooded melodrama such as David Belasco’s THE HEART OF MARYLAND (1895), where the Southern heroine, in order to save her Yankee lover, leaps up and clings to a bell’s clapper to keep it from ringing while he escapes (“The bell shall not ring!” she cries, prior to leaping). Such a pairing would clearly show from what Mr. Beckett was subtracting --- after all, what’s a Yang without its Yin?

"Voices in the Dark: Three Plays by Samuel Beckett" (3 - 20 February)
The Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 247-9777

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide