nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
September 15, 2012
Much of the dramatic tension in the plays written during Samuel Beckett’s “ghost period” rely on sound, or the character’s relationship to sound, so it seems an intelligent impulse to follow this motif further by exploring a musician’s response to the plays. In Sounding Beckett, presented by Cygnus Ensemble, three short plays are paired with a new composition by a modern composer in an attempt to create a conversation between music and play. Composers are alternated at each performance, making each experience potentially very different, but on the night I attended, the plays and music, while individually stunning, were often incongruent.
As the audience enters the space, the stage is ominously bare and starkly lit. The Cygnus Ensemble is separated from the audience and the playing space, positioned in a single file row at the extreme right, up on a platform and behind a scrim. They are visible during the overture and the musical interludes, but not during the plays themselves, reinforcing their distance from the dramatic action. The overture, written by William Anderson entitled J’attendrai- Overture to Sounding Beckett, is the only piece of music that will be repeated at each performance, and it beautifully sets up the dreamy world of the plays.
Each of the plays is excellent, starting with the haunting Footfalls. Holly Twiford plays a woman compulsively walking the floor of her mother’s house, in a dress that is so decayed it is almost see-through. This theme of decay seems to carry throughout each of the pieces, but is especially strong in Holly Twiford’s heartbreaking performance. She shows us a woman mad beyond hope, but who clings to the sound of her own footfalls. She “must hear the feet, however faint they fall,” whether in an attempt to assert her own resonance in the world, in defiance to her absent mother, or for some other reason we do not know. But Holly Twiford connects not only to the sound of her feet but to the disembodied voice of her mother, played melodiously via voice-over by Kathleen Chalfant, with an honesty and intensity of focus that is mesmerizing.
Ohio Impromputu, featuring Ted van Griethuysen and Philip Goodwin, begins with two almost identical men sitting at a table. One is The Reader, the other is The Listener. As The Reader tells the story, The Listener does not speak, but communicates through sharp knocking on the table, indicating his intentions to The Reader, who responds by repeating or continuing on with the text. The Reader seems to be telling the story of The Listener’s life, a tale nearing completion. At the play’s dramatic conclusion, one wonders if The Reader is the personification of The Listener’s memory, and if, as The Listener’s life fades, The Listener becomes memory before our eyes. Ted van Griethuysen is soothing and solid as The Reader, while Philip Goodwin’s Listener is riveting in his stoic, silent commentary.
The third play, Catastrophe, brings back all three of the performers in dramatically different roles. This is the first piece of the night that includes any color, though it’s limited to beiges and grays as opposed to the earlier pieces’s exclusive blacks and whites. More quickly paced, the lines are spoken in an impatient staccato, contrasting the languid feel of the earlier plays, with Philip Goodwin and Holly Twyford displaying brilliant comic timing as a brusk theatre director and his assistant. Originally written as a political allegory, this rendering is an insightful commentary on the nature of theatrical manipulation and the performer. The director and assistant spend the entirety of the play poking, prodding, stripping down and humiliating a man standing on a pedestal center stage. Ted van Griethuysen cuts a pitiable figure as he is molded into the director’s vision of ultimate catastrophe, and we are masterfully manipulated into feeling empathy for this man- until a recording of applause is heard and the man raises his head, joyfully triumphant in his role.
While the compositions performed between each play were wonderful on their own, only the most tenuous connections could be found between the plays and the music. All of the composers are modernists and on the night I saw the production, all three composers, Chester Ciscardi, Scott Johnson, and David Glaser, seemed to be of a similar aesthetic. The pieces were related to the Overture and to each other more than to the plays. For example, the piece in response to Ohio Impromptu was my favorite of the compositions, but while it incorporated some of the knocking from the play, the music took us on a journey filled with soaring highs which seemed antithetical to the stillness inherent in the play we had just seen. Perhaps the other composers will be more successful making connections, but this evening was a disjointed pairing- two excellent performances happening along side each other, but unsatisfying when considered as a whole.