Samuel Beckett’s plays are demanding and require patience and a questing mind. I don’t think a person goes to see Beckett without some kind of foreknowledge of what to expect. Many people certainly have heard of his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, if only because Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart recently toured with the show. Beckett’s plays present characters and situations that can mystify an audience, which must strive to construct meaning from what is seen and heard. This is not to say his works are elitist fare, but one must be up for the struggle to understand what the words and action may mean. Do the plays fulfill the prime directive to entertain? Oh, yes, indeed. Built into the absurdity and existentialism is a goodly amount of wry humor to a greater or lesser degree.
The playwright is extremely precise in describing how the action should unfold and the stage directions are not open to innovative interpretations by a director. Certainly, though, minor variations may occur. In the well known but seldom seen play Krapp’s Last Tape, for example, Beckett’s stage directions call for the actor playing Krapp to peel a banana and drop the peel on the floor. Later when he slips on it, he “stoops and peers at [the] skin and finally pushes it, still stooping, with his foot over the edge of the stage into pit.” The actor playing Krapp (Norbert Weisser), there being no pit, pockets the peel, an amusing and acceptable minor variation.
Beckett5 consists of four short plays, Act Without Words II, Come and Go, Catastrophe and Footfalls as curtain raisers, with the somewhat longer one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape presented after an intermission. Two large white sacks are positioned center stage in Act Wihout Words II. A figure in black, the goad, moves toward the sacks wielding a long pole with a large blunt arrowhead affixed to the end. He pokes a sack, which starts to move. A sad, weary person, dubbed A by Beckett, emerges, prays silently, goes through his routine ablutions, then reverses the procedures and crawls back into the sack. The goad comes downstage and pokes the other sack. A similar figure, B, emerges and goes through a similar set of actions, but with energy and a certain joie de vivre before going back into the sack. There is a lot more to it, but why be a spoiler?
In Come and Go, three women of “undeterminable” age who call to mind The Triplets of Belleville, enter and sit on a bench. Dressed in pastel outfits and matching hats of yellow, aquamarine and pink, they exchange a mere 121 words, but convey through subtle action an abiding, if mildly contentious relationship
The most political and disturbing of the plays, Catastrophe satirizes an ancient human power structure. A person, an assistant of some kind scurries about the stage peering at and making minor adjustments to what seems to be a human statue atop a small platform. A cigarette-smoking director enters, demands small changes in the position and attitude of the figure. When the figure shivers, it is apparent that this is a living person. Lighting adjustments are made and the director and the assistant leave. Beckett calls for a “distant storm of applause” which “falters” and “dies” after the person raises his head.
Footfalls features an ethereal woman named May who paces the stage like a prisoner in a cell walking off the same number of steps before turning and slowly striding back. May converses with her offstage mother. She is her mother’s caregiver, a situation that constricts her bleak, unhappy life. There is a surprising shift in the play when the characters seem to morph into self-conscious literary figures that refer to themselves in the third person. May becomes Amy and the mother Mrs. W. Although action is deliberate, the play is mysterious and engrossing.
Krapp’s Last Tape tops off the evening. Krapp (Mr. Weisser), old and disheveled sits at a table in his den, a tape recorder in front of him. Of an intellectual bent, Krapp has been recording himself making commentary on his life and loves for decades and this evening he chooses to listen to “spool five from box three.” He enjoys the sound of the word “spoooool.” He goes over some passages again and again hoping for what? A different outcome with the woman who figures in it? At the end of life, he is joyless and cramped.
The cast of five protean actors — Alan Abelew, Diana Cignoni, Sheelagh Cullen, Elizabeth Hogan and the aforementioned Mr. Weisser — is superb. The performances, under the astute direction of Ron Sossi, are wonderfully detailed and very affecting as well as hilarious when hilarity is called for. Bravo!
The production is well served by the creative team that includes set designer Mark Guirguis; lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang; sound designer Christopher Moscatiello; costume designer Audrey Eisner; and props designer Danny Felix.
There is no question that Beckett can be a tough go for an audience, and not everyone will like it, but the rewards are there for the patient and attentive. One doesn’t get an opportunity to see well-produced, well-directed, well-performed Beckett very often, so if you love theatre, see this show.
The Koan Unit presentation of Beckett5 runs through March 5 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.