No Danger of the Spiritual Thing: Short Works by Beckett

at the Museum of Contemporary Art

You don’t have to read a lot of Beckett to get the point. Though he spent 60 years paring down his work, eliminating more and more conventional elements, the writer’s theme remained largely unchanged: the doomed, deluded fumbling of the human race, cursed with an inexplicable capacity for hope–and an inexhaustible supply of imperfect words to express it.

Sheer variety is one of the many good things about “No Danger of the Spiritual Thing: Short Works by Beckett,” the Curious Theatre Branch’s first production in a season-long exploration of the writer’s work. Curators Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus have marshaled various theater artists to mount half a dozen short plays as well as a protean work of 13 monologues, Texts for Nothing. All together they span roughly six hours over two evenings, and Beckett’s unsparing, unhappy vision is seldom cheapened or simplified. Audiences hoping to appreciate the work–I’m not sure one can truly enjoy such concentrated bleakness–have to work at it.

The workload was increased for both artists and audiences for one of two programs on opening weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, when five pieces–Play, Footfalls, Fizzle 4, Rough for Theater I, and Not I–were mounted in various spaces. Magnus spent six months negotiating with the MCA, trying to gain audience access to nonpublic corridors and to galleries during off hours. To see all five shows audience members had to climb and descend many flights of stairs, making it impossible for people with disabilities to attend, and sometimes sit on the floor or stand to watch performances. And because the audience was split in three and led by docents through the productions in different orders, the actors had to perform their demanding plays three times in rapid succession.

These complications will disappear when three of the performances–Play, Rough for Theater I, and Texts for Nothing–move to Prop Thtr this weekend (Greasy Joan & Company’s Catastrophe and Curious Theatre’s That Time will be added). But on opening weekend, half of my 30-person audience was thoroughly disgruntled by the stair climbing, particularly when misdirection from a docent put two extra flights in our path. The rest were finished off by the too-few low-slung stools set up in the galleries for our “comfort”: they somehow made my feet go numb. But for all the schlepping, stumbling on Beckett in unexpected places was often provocative. May, the ashen, disheveled figure doomed to revolve certain memories in her mind forever in Footfalls, paced methodically beside an enormous photograph of a woman consumed by some thought. The narrator of Fizzle 4, desperate to convince himself that some other entity lived his insignificant life, looked down the museum’s main stairway to see a version of himself dawdling away. And when that version contemplated drowning, the museum’s shallow fishpond was at his feet (a Beckettian suicide wouldn’t take place anywhere more imposing).

O’Reilly best exploited the weekend’s site-specific potential by mounting Play in an enormous freight elevator. Its massive steel doors parted noisily to reveal Magnus, Kathleen Powers, and Guy Massey packed into urns with only their heads showing, their faces and hair smeared with unidentifiable gray sludge. When Play abruptly ended, the elevator doors closed resoundingly: it was as if a portal had cracked open briefly to offer a glimpse of humanity babbling and entombed, an image so vivid it’s difficult to believe those heads aren’t in there still, talking away. The three begin the play’s interwoven recitations in toneless voices, each fixated on some past infidelity and speaking only when a flashlight’s beam snaps onto his or her face. But rather than keep their voices flat the way Beckett directs, O’Reilly has his actors build a melodramatic enthusiasm throughout, giving the work a welcome humor. Perhaps to reassure themselves that they exist (“Am I as much as . . . being seen?” one intones repeatedly), they repeat the whole play–following Beckett’s stage direction, though it’s ambiguous enough to mean the recitations might go on forever. The performers’ concentration is mesmerizing, especially considering their physical constraints and the crosscut dialogue’s apparent randomness.

The only performance that seemed lost in the museum was Prop’s Rough for Theater I, a sort of “Endgame Lite” with two old men, one blind and one crippled, banded together to survive in a wasteland. Staged on a brightly lit landing, it remained unfocused, and nothing made Beckett’s gray landscape credible. Perhaps on Prop’s small stage the work will cohere, so long as actors Stefan Brun and Don Schroeder deliver more than the pro forma performances of opening weekend.

The even more exhausting Texts for Nothing (performed Sundays only at Prop) hits real pay dirt. Written in 1950 and 1951, these 13 elliptical prose pieces mark a definitive shift in Beckett’s fiction, as he abandons character and narrative completely. Instead a disembodied lone consciousness (or perhaps 13 variations on a consciousness) tries to will itself into existence–and articulate a convincing reason to exist in the featureless void where it seems to be trapped. The writing is dizzyingly, sometimes numbingly nonlinear. As the voice in Text 3 says, “There’s going to be a departure, I’ll be there, I won’t miss it, it won’t be me, I’ll be here, I’ll say I’m far from here, it won’t be me, I won’t say anything.”

Presented in the MCA theater, Texts for Nothing took well over three hours even with one of the performers gone (a photocopy of text was handed out instead). But almost all the actors show a thoughtful understanding of the material, somehow stitching together Beckett’s scattershot clauses into satisfying yet inexplicable wholes. Most also create simple, puzzling stage pictures as fascinating as the text’s irreducible mysteries. Teresa Weed empties an enormous duffel bag of cotton onto the stage, then uses it to stuff a man-shaped sack. Powers strikes mock-heroic poses while reading her text from balloons, a shovel, and a life jacket–wry symbols of air, earth, and water. Fire, the element notoriously absent from Beckett’s universe, she swigs occasionally from a pocket flask. Vickie Walden performs in pajamas with a wooden table strapped to her leg. And H.B. Ward simply sits crouched at the rear of the stage, lit dimly from above by a single greenish light so that his face becomes a black hole. Overall the experience is so rich that Chris Bower’s inexplicable performance of an original work in lieu of Beckett’s Text 8 seems like a paint smear on the Mona Lisa.

These confounding, alluring images may lose some of their resonance when Texts for Nothing moves from the MCA’s vaulting, elegant theater to Prop’s cramped confines. But the venue is less significant than the show’s implicit rewards.

When: Through Sun 2/5: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Moving to Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

Price: $15 or “pay what you can”

Info: 773-267-6660

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristin Basta.