and PLAY

Element Theatre Company

at the Chicago Actors Project

Cast a cold eye on life, on death. –W.B. Yeats

Of all the unsmiling Irish eyes, no one, not even Yeats, casts a colder eye than Samuel Beckett. He’s the peerless master of the withering perspective. The sky turns as gray as Channel One and the trees shed their leaves when Beckett walks by. He’s the god of academic theater. And the most amazing thing about him, aside from his awesome talent, is that he’s still alive. Or maybe it’d be better to say that he still exists. But can existence be as bleak as he so ruthlessly portrays it? Or does it only seem that way through his eyes? Why is it that we can only see through Beckett’s eyes when we read his plays, and productions of them invariably fall short of manifesting that vision?

The frustrating truth may be that Beckett is impossible to produce. I’ve certainly never seen a production of a Beckett play that came across with more than a fraction of what I understood from reading the script, and Element Theatre Company’s current double bill of Beckett one-acts is no exception. At least it’s a grown-up production, free of the usual undergraduate stupidities. But something more than mature insight is called for here, I think–something bordering on disrespect. I mean, look at the stage directions in any one of Beckett’s plays. They’re ridiculously complicated and dictatorial. They ask directors to do double back flips into an empty pool, with Beckett holding all the scorecards. Maybe, just maybe, the thing to do is to take some liberties with Beckett.

Director Jim Ortlieb takes only a few liberties with Play, the first one-act of the evening. The three characters aren’t bottled up to their necks in large urns as called for, nor are their speeches picked out by a single (“unique inquisitor”) spotlight. Instead, the actors wear black and remain immobile as three alternating spots shine up into their ghostly and detached faces. It’s a wonderfully spooky effect, very horror show. But I never got the feeling that the characters were dead, or alive but somehow dead, in that surreal mausoleum wherein Play transpires. I didn’t even know what they were talking about, since the actors’ voices were flat and oddly abstracted (more or less according to Beckett’s elaborate stage directions). What was obviously meant to be poetry devolved into mere vocabulary.

Next morning I read the play–which is about a love triangle–and it made sense. It cohered. It’s all very clear on paper. The relationships come into focus. I can see, in my mind, the heads cut and arranged like flowers, their once blooming lives wilting in memory. Now I get it. But when I recall the show of the night before, I see only disembodied heads appearing and disappearing in a precise but disorienting rhythm–Laurie Anderson with a remote-control channel changer. In the final analysis it seems as if Ortlieb’s slavish fidelity to the script’s stage directions, except for the technically expedient changes already mentioned, shows more respect for Beckett than for the audience.

Ortlieb takes much greater liberties with Krapp’s Last Tape, and with greater success. The play is stripped of 90 percent of its stage directions and all of the dialogue. So the audience doesn’t review, along with Krapp, excerpts from his extensive tape-recorded diary. We also miss Krapp’s commentary–his cynical and evasive rationalizations of what appears to be a wasted life. Essentially all you see in this production is a pantomime of Krapp listening to blank tape or holding the microphone but unable to say anything. He gradually becomes more and more distressed, and finally the tape runs off the spool, leaving him paralyzed and vaguely aghast.

This streamlined production isn’t as explicit as the script of Krapp’s Last Tape, but it’s still rather impressive. The message is rock solid. There might as well be nothing on Krapp’s tapes since his life has amounted to nothing. Ortlieb’s direction makes this point in a clear, very theatrical way, whereas more literal direction, as in Play, might have obscured the point in a clockwork of details, sound effects, pauses, and cumbersome stage business. Credit is also due to Vito Bitondo (as Krapp) for his pale, slack-jawed, shell-of-a-man dumb show. Bitondo says it all quite well without words, and he doesn’t overcompensate with a lot of histrionics. You might say this isn’t the show Beckett intended, but what the hell, if Beckett thinks he can do better, why doesn’t he come down off his four horses of the apocalypse and direct his plays himself?

Rockabye was also slated on the evening’s bill but, ironically, was announced to still be in rehearsal on opening night. All of Beckett’s plays will always be hung up there somewhere in the rehearsal process, with directors and actors smacking their heads against the curb of Beckett’s dark one-way street to infinity.

Ortlieb has pulled at least one of these one-acts onto the stage with some tentative success, but I don’t recommend this production for anyone who isn’t a Beckett student. (Beckett has no fans, only students.) Look, if you can sit in front of a Rothko painting for an hour or so and be drawn into some hypnotic yet intellectually slippery embrace, then you should probably catch this show. Otherwise, you may find it eerie and occasionally intriguing, but mostly a sweatbox for the creature of doubt. About that doubt: does life have meaning and if so, are we better off not knowing what it is? Personally, Beckett has always left me feeling like I’m stuck in a bus station with my hand wrapped around a cold cup of coffee.