Performers Under Stress

at ‘Od’s Blood Theatre

“Is it true love in the rectum?” asks the man on the floor, who’s flat on his stomach, flanked by two candles that provide the only light on his face. The scene is claustrophobic and menacing. Whether we’re personally familiar with the man’s sexual predilection or not, we are totally immersed, totally invested in the answer: it might be a cheap trick, but it could just as easily be the meaning of life.

The question comes from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, in a savage monologue about the trappings and fears of love and intimacy. It might be a metaphor, but it’s probably not: What is true love? Can we find it where everything is so frail and frightening, where pain is imminent and trust absolutely required? And if it is true love, why is it so dirty?

In the end Beckett’s character is like the rest of us, flailing around like a fish out of water, trying desperately to get back to warmer, better climes. He tries to find true love in a vagina, but, for all that it might be where he’s supposed to be, it simply doesn’t hold him tight enough. “I would have preferred an orifice less arid,” he says, doom all through his voice. Then he blows out the candles.

In the ‘Od’s Blood Theatre, where the adaptation of the “true love” monologue and the three lesser-known Beckett pieces that make up “Sam I Am” was being performed, the audience let out its collective breath in one long sigh of relief as the candle smoke ascended.

“Sam I Am,” the brainchild of actor-directors Charles Pike and Scott Baker (who plays the man on the floor), is an ambitious, disturbing, even inspiring evening. It is an extension of “Unauthorized Beckett,” which the two performed last year at the Bucktown Rhinoceros Theatre Festival–a vision of darkness, irreverence, and, absurdly enough, a kind of serendipitous hope.

“Everybody does Waiting for Godot and Endgame,” Pike explained after the show. “We think those are fine–but that Beckett isn’t appreciated nearly as much as he should be because there’s so little exposure to his other work.”

Pike and Baker have not just dug up some obscure pieces to play with. In many ways they have chosen pieces that reflect a truer, perhaps more intimate Beckett than theatergoers usually get to see. After all, Godot and Endgame, though classics in the Beckett canon, are atypical; most of his writing consists of brief, one-act, almost minimalist plays and radio and TV dramas that often defy interpretation. The pieces done by Performers Under Stress, or PUS, in “Sam I Am” are blunt, nervous, and even kind of masturbatory.

Theatre I, which opens “Sam I Am,” was written after Godot but well before Endgame. Its two characters–one named Billy, the other a nameless one-legged man–are right on the cusp of intimacy and interdependency. Billy, a blind beggar who plays the fiddle, claims he has “always been the same, crouched in the dark, scratching out a jingle to the four winds.” His existence is miserable and degrading to anyone who can see it.

“Why don’t you let yourself die?” asks the one-legged man, perched in a supermarket cart that he propels using a mop as if it were an oar or a rudder.

“I’ve thought of it,” Billy responds.

“But you don’t do it,” the one-legged man says.

“I’m not unhappy enough,” Billy tells him.

The need of each for what the other can offer is obvious. Billy can help the one-legged man by pushing his cart around; the one-legged man can provide Billy with guidance and food. But the one-legged man wants more, a son substitute perhaps; and Billy wants a repository for his desire. They get close enough to establish their ability to cause pain and be dependent, but they are too scared to go for more and, like most of us, not unhappy enough to end it all.

The evening’s other major piece, Radio II, is a radio script performed in its entirety with minimal blocking and movement behind a white screen. The audience sees only shadows. Contrary to the in-your-face physicality and seediness of the rest of the program, Radio II feels more like elegant eavesdropping. The emphasis on concentration and control is only underscored by the interrogation of a man named Fox by the Animator, a professorial fascist who alternates between dulcet tones and violent threats.

Most of the interaction occurs between the Animator and the Stenographer, a perky young woman who chooses not to notice when the Animator is flirting or being condescending. The final character is the brutish Dick, who whips Fox and who may have the distinction of being the only scripted silent role in radio drama (he grunted in the original 1976 production on BBC). In the end, the Animator, who may well be a metaphor for Beckett’s resentment of academia, refuses the Stenographer’s pleas to be kind to Fox and changes Fox’s testimony to conform with what he wants to hear.

Pike and Baker, who direct themselves, embrace Beckett’s dark comedy with rare energy and dedication. They are uniformly good, almost eerily in concert with each other. Still, not everything works. Fizzle 2, the second offering, performed solo by Pike, was a total mystery to me. But PUS was so honest and daring in its efforts that I didn’t mind.