BUCKETS O’ BECKETT
CRIES AFAR NOW FAINT NOW CLEAR
at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe
A year ago Splinter Group produced a two-evening festival of Beckett plays whimsically titled “Buckets o’ Beckett.” Performed in a tiny, austere theater space in one of the upper stories of a great empty warren of a warehouse near Cortland and Ashland, these little plays–among them Play, Catastrophe, Ohio Impromptu, and Krapp’s Last Tape–felt all the more bleak.
A year later, having received attention and acclaim in Chicago and at the Seattle Fringe Festival, where it performed Krapp’s Last Tape, the company has moved into a more conventional storefront space, a few doors east of the busy (and noisy) intersection of Damen and Division. The change of environs doesn’t seem to have dampened the group’s enthusiasm for Beckett, though this year “Buckets o’ Beckett” has been shortened to one evening’s worth of theater.
Into that evening, however, are packed five of Beckett’s shorter plays directed by Splinter Group artistic director Matt O’Brien and Neo-Futurist Greg Allen. Of these the most satisfying–if I can use a word like satisfying to describe Beckett–are those directed by Allen. This despite the fact that the plays he directs (Come and Go, Act Without Words II, and What Where) are much colder and more forbidding, formal, and abstract than the two O’Brien is responsible for (Footfalls and Embers).
In Come and Go Beckett introduces us to three identically dressed women–full-length coats, “drab nondescript hats” with wide, face-hiding brims–who pair off in various combinations over the course of the very short play and repeat a gossip-trading ritual. In Act Without Words II we watch two characters–one sloppy, one obsessively neat–mime their daily routine: brush teeth, pray, exercise, eat, prepare for bed, sleep. In What Where we meet another set of identically dressed figures–Bim, Bam, Bem, Bom–whose story, related by a blank-faced narrator, consists of the same bit of dialogue about the attempt of one figure to torture information out of another repeated four times.
Yet in each play Allen succeeds in finding the specific details, the tiny movements, the telling character traits that ground these plays in reality. Clearly his years writing and directing short plays for Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind have taught him how to get to the heart of a short piece with a minimum of fuss. In Come and Go the three women who appear give their characters just enough detail–Karen Gundersen seems strong, Patty Kunz relishes the gossip most, Kerry Reid seems a touch sarcastic–to make them seem like real characters in an abstract world.
Ted deMoniak and Robin MacDuffie play a similar game in the mimed piece Act Without Words II. Stealing a page from Buster Keaton, deMoniak and MacDuffie do only what’s necessary to make their characters intelligible. A less subtle actor might interpret Beckett’s note that character A should brood as an excuse to imitate The Thinker, but deMoniak merely stares for a moment, looking confused. MacDuffie, directed by the script to consult his watch again and again, uses not a flamboyant gesture but an understated quick look that speaks volumes about his character’s obsession with time.
Interestingly, the first two plays Allen directs work because he and his cast were able to find the telling realistic detail among the abstractions, but What Where works because he, following Beckett, never breaks its Bauhaus-like formality. The result is that Beckett’s humanistic, antifascist message continually boils in the subtext.
By contrast, O’Brien, working with relatively longer, less obscure texts, seems more than a little lost. Part of the problem is that he must contend with an embarrassment of linguistic riches. Both Footfalls and Embers, which was originally written as a radio play, are intensely wordy texts. Still, as any Shakespearean will tell you, given the right actors and the right direction it’s possible to communicate even the densest monologue.
Neither Footfalls nor Embers has the clarity or unity of vision that typify Allen’s pieces. It can’t help that O’Brien cast himself in the starring role in Embers, robbing himself of a director’s distance. As Henry, a crabby old man who mutters to himself and his wife’s ghost, O’Brien sometimes lays it on a bit thick, sometimes rages a bit too loud for the space, other times muffs what could be wickedly funny lines–as when Henry snaps at his wife during a flashback to their daughter’s trials with a cruel music teacher, “It was not enough to drag her into the world, now she must play the piano.”
But even in Footfalls, in which Karen Gundersen plays a woman who paces back and forth alone while being tortured by the voice of her dead mother, O’Brien seems unable to make Beckett’s play talk and move at the same time.
O’Brien might do well to check out two rivals in the Chicago Beckett market, Charles Pike and Scott Baker. Dubbed the “Beckett Boys” for their productions a few years ago in the now-defunct coffee shop Too Far West, the two are currently performing a pair of Beckett pieces, a one-act originally written for BBC television, Eh Joe, and a short prose work, Stirrings Still, which has the distinction of being the last thing Beckett wrote.
Like Footfalls and Embers, Eh Joe concerns a character haunted by someone from the past. In this play, however, the haunted person remains silent while he’s harangued by the voices that may or may not be only in his head. Baker has made two crucial directing choices. First, he never lets us forget that this is a real, soul-searing haunting. When the voices tell Joe “You know that penny farthing hell you call your mind. . . . That’s where you think this is coming from, don’t you?” you can feel the threat in your gut. Second, Baker never lets what little action there is steal the focus from Beckett’s words. Throughout the play Pike sits alone and silent onstage; his most dramatic gesture is a furrowed brow.
In the second half of the show Pike and Baker accomplish something even harder: they successfully translate to the stage a difficult prose work full of sentences like “For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to do if he is to be said at all?” Believe it or not, even this convoluted sentence seemed crystal clear when delivered by the Beckett Boys.