nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
November 9, 2006
Is there something I should do with my face other than utter? Weep?
These words, from Samuel Beckett's tiny monolith Play, present, perhaps, the essential conundrum for the actor tasked with performance of his work. What is to be done with one's face? Especially when, in many cases, that is the only physical instrument fully left to the actor's command?
In Beckett Below, an evening of four short Beckett works, the production company known as ghostcrab grapples with this. They present the aforementioned Play, the silent Acts Without Words II, the bleak Footfalls, and That Time, an ephemeral piece, which is, perhaps, a meditation on memory or dreaming. Anytime we can see Beckett off the page and on its feet is a cause for celebration, and it's hard to do anything but recommend a look at this evening's offerings. As such, it is four directors, four different casts; essentially, four entirely independent productions under one banner. They hit and miss in four entirely different ways.
The first piece presented is Play, which places one man and two women in ash bins, up to their necks. These talking heads flow with streams of language; they present snippets of a hellish exercise in adultery. Of the four pieces, this is the most successful, due in no small part to director Peter Campbell's expert handling of the tone and meter of the play's music. Some of the lines didn't have the bite they could have ("Bite off my tongue and swallow it. Spit it out. Would that placate you?") but it would be a Herculean challenge to make every single word drop perfectly.
Of the three actors, the standout is Amanda Boekelheide. She manages to stay within Beckett's cadence perfectly, and adds the necessary bile to her voice's story. Another noteworthy performer doesn't speak: Gavin Starr Kendall mans the flashlight and does this difficult task with clockwork precision.
Acts Without Words II is presented without frills: it's very much the mime, as written. In this short, two men are discovered in sacks. They are prodded, one at a time, to leave their sacks. One of them wakes and goes about his business (putting on his clothes, praying, eating a carrot) with a resigned air. The next is more active... he also repeatedly looks at his watch and brushes his teeth.
In this piece, the director errs on the side of keeping things passionless. The two performers work through the piece accurately, but lack the intention that sometimes turns this piece comic and desperate.
The third piece, Footfalls, goes in the opposite direction. In this play, young May walks back and forth along a strip on the stage, taking nine steps before wheeling heel-to-toe. She turns to us, tells us stories, speaks to her Mother, who speaks back. We see her "revolving it all in her poor...mind."
This is the first time I've seen Footfalls feel a bit like a cut-out from a larger melodrama. Truthfully, Play certainly has its melodramatic aspects as well. But this is almost frustratingly spare theatre, it's almost empty of any traditional dramatic elements. Director Eve Hartmann tries to mine the play for our sympathy. We see actress Molly Powell struggling with each step, hunched, worried, overwhelmed. There were moments I wished I could just listen to the language, and make my own judgments about how difficult her life was.
The last piece is probably the least produced: That Time. The play, as staged by director Tim Lee, looks very much like a challenge. The play consists of three voices, speaking to a face. All else is black. As the voices swirl, and repeat (much like Play) the face responds, his eyes open, his mouth opens, at odd intervals, to pinpoint some precise revelation (or lack thereof.)
While there are few elements here (a face and voices), there is quite a bit happening. Lee gives all three voices and the face to a single actor. While this makes sense textually, it also makes it impossible to discern which voice is speaking, when one starts and the next begins. In a mishmash of language like this, that makes a difficult play almost impossible to follow...especially at the end of a challenging evening.
As an entire evening, there were a few things that detracted from my enjoyment. One, simply put, was backstage noise. At Under St. Marks, there isn't much distance between the backstage and the audience, a thin wall or two. In pieces that rely so entirely on silence, excess noise is a serious problem. Obviously, there are limits to what can be done...but it's not a small issue.
The other issue was simply the order in which the pieces are presented. The evening starts with arguably the most accessible piece and ends with the most obscure. These pieces are taxing no matter which order they go in...but to close with the one that requires the most active attention almost guarantees that moments will get lost.
Obviously, these pieces are ambitious for any company. As an evening, regardless of the missteps here and there, Beckett Below is very much worth a true theatre-lover's time. My small concerns notwithstanding, these four productions are all very true to Beckett's intentions, and performed with a love of his work.