at the Garage

As near as I can make out from press materials, Scott Baker and Charles Pike were draining the dregs of some red wine in the wee hours when they were simultaneously struck with a Dionysian inspiration: “Let’s put on a show!”

This did not promise to be the trivial meeting of the minds this description may suggest. Baker is a veteran of several avant-garde productions with Theatre of the Reconstruction, including Shepard’s The Unseen Hand and resident playwright Scott Turner’s Where the People Have No Eyes. Pike’s most recent appearance was in Prop Theatre’s Mass Murder, for which he won a Jeff citation; before that he was in William S. Burroughs’s The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, also at Prop. Most important, the muse both actors invoked was none other than the late granddaddy of absurdism, Samuel Beckett. Clearly this collaboration would be no ordinary sketch-and-blackout revue.

PUS, an acronym for Performers Under Stress, is the collective name these artists chose–and the founders offer their statement on the therapeutic effects of that bacterial by-product. I guess Beckett would have liked it. The evening consists of short plays and fiction fragments by Beckett assembled by Baker and Pike with the assistance of Chicago newcomer Mark Guest. Beckett’s portrait has been drawn in chalk on the bare brick wall of the Garage; it’s flanked by a quotation from Dr. Seuss: “I Am Sam. Sam I Am.”

With Beckett, one tends to grasp at the straws of program notes and lobby decor. Beckett is no more easily comprehended now than he was in 1953, when Waiting for Godot first puzzled audiences and critics. Literary scholars may theorize about the reasons for playwrights’ abandoning narrative and rational language in favor of nonverbal evocations, but such theories are little help to the audience member confronted by long periods of silence and stasis broken by words and actions seemingly as unconnected as shards of glass from a shattered windshield. Those of us who have been acculturated to value reason over mysticism are lost without a story, and can attend only marginally to other aspects of a production, so distracting is our search for order. The problem facing actors playing Beckett is to overcome the audience’s need to make sense of things while somehow holding their attention long enough for them to experience whatever cerebral or spiritual response the playwright intended.

To their credit, Baker, Pike, and Guest do not attempt to solve this difficulty with hyperkinetic acrobatics or flashy vocalizations, as many young actors would have done. There’s an interesting image, to be sure, in Theatre I–an amputee who moves about seated in a shopping cart, which he propels with a sponge mop he uses like a barge pole. Then there are the long platinum blond wigs worn by both characters in Ohio Impromptu–perhaps to suggest great age, though in themselves they’re quite beautiful, gleaming like halos in the dim light. And the three actors are costumed throughout in nothing but overcoats –as an accidental flash of bare backside revealed.

These visual gimmicks alone would not be enough to hold us for an entire hour, however. To accomplish that, Baker, Pike, and Guest risk a studied restraint throughout. This leisurely approach requires singular courage, assuming as it does that one’s audience will not grow impatient but will follow the actor at the pace he sets. Very few young actors have this sort of confidence. These three not only attempt this hazardous style but succeed in riveting our attention, each minuscule word and movement taking on the isolated mystery of the smallest microcosm.

Unauthorized Beckett includes two playlets, Theatre I, a sort of “prequel” to the longer Endgame, and Ohio Impromptu, in which one person patiently reads to another (possibly an allegorical re-creation of a deathwatch–in which case, may all our passings be as peaceful). Also featured are the “Afar a Bird” selection from Fizzles, a passage from The Unnameable, and the “Hedgehog” anecdote from Company–my favorite piece of the evening, in which Guest poignantly conveys the humor and the horror that result from keeping a wild animal in captivity. More works by Beckett will be added as the show continues, including the dramatic piece Radio II.

Although as a whole Unauthorized Beckett is more like a series of acting exercises than a complete and finished production, it offers the opportunity to see the work of three superbly talented actors, of whom I am certain we will see more in the future.