Since the Buckets o’ Beckett festival began in 1992, the charm of Splinter Group’s annual show has been the poverty of the productions. Their minimal sets, inexpensive costumes, and strong but unknown non-Equity casts perfectly mirrored the austerity of Beckett’s bleak vision, giving the plays an edgy authenticity money can’t buy. Not that the company had much money anyway–which was why they chose to focus on Beckett, with his emphasis on language and stripped-down stage business. All they really needed were a couple of actors with a strong sense for his harsh, poetic wordplay and a well-lit performance space. The first festival was performed in a warehouse in the early stages of rehab, the second and third in a ragged little storefront near the corner of Damen and Division–and the Beckett fans came in droves. Last year’s success at the Theatre Building emboldened Splinter Group artistic director Matt O’Brien to wade into the mainstream: this festival has gone Hollywood–and turned Equity. With a roster of high-profile directors and a couple of big-name actors (John Mahoney, Estelle Parsons), the 1996 Buckets o’ Beckett will be anything but austere. But if the first week of festival previews are any indication, the spirit of the early shows lives on: in Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s moody meditation on memory and loss in an age of electronic reproduction, Mahoney gives a pitch-perfect performance. The festival opens this weekend with Play, Act Without Words #1, and Krapp’s Last Tape. Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, 325-1700. Opens Thursday, April 25, at 8 PM. Through April 28: Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 5 and 8:30 PM; Sunday 3 and 7 PM. (See listing for other programs.) $22-$36 per program.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.