Theatre of the Reconstruction

When I think about Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, three years dead now, I imagine him caught in a purgatory like the ones in his plays Waiting for Godot and Footfalls. Day after day his characters repeat the same gestures and accomplish absolutely nothing. When I try to imagine his reaction to Scott Turner’s Rowboat, a new piece weaving together words from Krapp’s Last Tape and the play and the poem Cascando, I suspect he’d be tremendously irritated. But there’s absolutely nothing he can do.

Beckett was adamantly precise in his stage directions, often specifying the number of steps an actor should take or the seconds a pause should last. When American Repertory Theatre broke from the stage directions for Endgame in 1985, employing a multiracial cast and setting the play in a defunct subway station, Beckett was enraged. He and his publisher threatened to sue, sent telegrams, released press statements, and were about to pull production rights when, in the final hours before the show, an agreement was reached. The show went on, but both Beckett and ART’s artistic director Robert Brustein inserted statements in the program. Beckett denounced the show; Brustein defended the right to artistic freedom.

Turner’s new piece basically cuts and pastes the separate works. Purists can rant and rave that Beckett’s work is being destroyed. But people have tampered with Beckett scripts before, and they’ll do it again. With a certain Beckettian irony, the action will irritatingly repeat itself.

The question to ask is, What is gained and what is lost? Beckett’s plays usually consist of one sharp image. Turner incorporates three: Krapp’s desk, raised on a platform and surrounded by rubble; Opener’s study, bare and cold despite a glowing space heater in the corner; and a beautifully melancholic underworld turned upside down and suspended from the ceiling–dirt, dead leaves, and a woman on top, table and chair poking down from the platform like roots.

In Krapp’s Last Tape the action is simple. Krapp, a writer, celebrates his birthday by making a tape recording of his reflections on the past year and by listening to recordings he has made on previous birthdays. He’s now a raggedy old bachelor who chooses to listen to a tape he recorded on his 39th birthday entitled “Farewell to Love.” Though they’re at different stages in life, the old Krapp does exactly the same things the young Krapp did in the tape: he eats bananas, drinks beer, listens to recordings from earlier years, and then records a new tape. In his new recording he reacts to himself having reacted to himself having reacted to himself.

That recursive structure–and the sense of total isolation it creates–is fragmented by Turner’s insertion of Cascando. But oddly enough, it’s not destroyed. In breaking from Beckett’s tight staging directions, Turner and his cast (James Thoresen as Krapp, Tracy Weed as Voice, and Mark Hanks as Opener) rely heavily on their own interpretations of the plays, and the result is an emotionally and visually rich production, full of melancholy, longing, and extreme loneliness.

In Rowboat all three characters are acutely aware of their isolation. From an audience’s perspective they inhabit the same space and therefore seem less isolated than Beckett intended, but that doesn’t matter. They feel isolated, therefore they are. Stirring about in the dried leaves and dust of the underworld that floats at the back of the stage, Weed is a Voice with a pale hollow face, wild hair, wide eyes, and a tongue tired from always speaking and never being heard. She addresses Opener, who sits writing on notecards: “Finish this one . . . It’s the right one . . . Then rest.” Maybe he hears her, maybe he doesn’t.

Like the young Krapp, Opener in Cascando is a writer obsessed by love, “terrified again of not loving, of loving and not you, of being loved and not by you.” Turner enforces the connection between Krapp’s Last Tape and Cascando by giving Opener the lines usually spoken on tape by Krapp at age 39. It’s as if Turner has given a past to Krapp with Cascando, filling in the holes that Beckett deliberately left empty.

Both Krapp and Opener are writers, but ineffective ones. The old Krapp published a book that sold only 17 copies; Opener can never finish a work that satisfies a strong, unspoken need in his soul. That need is love, Turner seems to be saying in his adaptation, which highlights notions of lost love and of forcing oneself to go on living though life has lost all purpose.

A lot of Beckett productions focus on the futility of living and fall flat. Others fail because the performers stick too tightly to the written word and don’t work to develop their characters. This production focuses on living within the futility, and its characters are alive and rich (especially Thoresen as Krapp). Turner’s adaptation is colorful, complex, and emotionally satisfying.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.