Beckett Doesn't Have to be Bleak | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Beckett Doesn't Have to be Bleak 

At this year's Rhino fest, the old existentialist gets the laughs he deserves.

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Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, Endgame

Rhinoceros Theater Festival

For this year's Rhinoceros Theater Festival (the 18th edition), curators Jenny Magnus and Beau O'Reilly have focused on works written or inspired by Beckett, whose plays many interpret as exercises in unrelenting gloom. His world is routine in both the sense of well-worn habit and well-worn shtick, suggesting that humanity's struggles to stave off despair are as stale as amateur vaudeville. In Endgame, it's not surprising that blind, crippled Hamm watches the universe peter out and concludes, "You weep, and weep, for nothing, so as not to laugh."

But even though Beckett's feeble characters may stumble through blasted, comfortless wastelands only to discover that their trials amount to nothing, their deluded efforts to maintain some dignity in a world of perpetual debasement make for profound comedy. You can almost judge the success of three Beckett productions in the festival by the number of thoughtful laughs they provide.

On opening night the show that seemed destined for humorless disaster was Clove Productions' Krapp's Last Tape, the elegant 1958 one-act in which the decrepit Krapp listens with unmitigated disdain to tapes he recorded of himself 30 years earlier. It started 45 minutes late, and performer Michael Martin spent much of that time nervously running--and bungling--his lines in the lobby. But by the time he finally appeared onstage, his mane of gray hair as disheveled as his ill-fitting black trousers and vest, his incongruous white shoes polished to a Sunday-school gleam, he'd mastered this heartbreaking buffoon. Shuffling stiffly to an enormous desk covered with an ancient reel-to-reel tape deck and a dozen battered boxes of tape spools, he lowered himself into a chair with arthritic care, placed his hands neatly before him, and let out a tiny sigh, which left him as limp as a deflated balloon.

For the play's 45 minutes Krapp rummages around in the desk, eats a banana (slipping on the peel, of course), fumbles with his tapes, exits to take swigs from his bottle backstage (the audience hears only a dainty pop as he uncorks it), and finally listens to his former self rambling on about seemingly nothing--though it gradually becomes evident that the tape may recount how he blew his one chance at true love. Under Beau O'Reilly's meticulous direction, Martin plays the scene as a very funny grumbling clown routine. Each tiny accomplishment--finding the right tape spool or feeding it into the player--brings a fleeting moment of joy even as the accumulated weight of a squandered life squashes this rail-thin Krapp farther down in his chair. As Martin sits motionless listening to the tape, his expression by turns contemptuous, sly, forlorn, defeated, childlike, and empty, he creates a pitiful and absurd old man, someone who sees that his effort to create a brilliant chronicle of his life has fallen tragicomically flat.

Cecilie O'Reilly's approach to Happy Days, Beckett's last full-length play, pushes understatement to an even greater extreme. Middle-aged Winnie is buried in the barren earth--to her waist in the first act, to her neck in the second. Dead set on keeping her spirits up, all she has to occupy her is rummaging through her purse, putting up a parasol, and prattling to her nearly mute husband, Willie. Though Winnie is typically portrayed as forcefully chipper and almost totemic, O'Reilly (who also directs) plays her as introspective, brooding, and at times overtly bored. This approach drains some of the urgency from the play, as does the extensive editing of the text, but it also scales the character and the humor down to human size, making it intimate and gentle.

The show's design is more problematic. Rather than being buried in earth, Winnie sits in a pile of bagged garbage--or, more accurately, sits behind the pile. This renders her explicit references to being buried in the ground meaningless and also eliminates the fundamental predicament of being constrained: why doesn't this Winnie just head off to a happier place?

Endgame, Beckett's exquisitely static portrait of mankind's last gasp, may be the exception that proves the rule. Certainly it's a less funny production than Happy Days, but it winds up working better. Director Jeffrey Bivens steers the cast away from the script's overt humor, most of the vaudeville shtick falls flat, and the squabbling between Hamm, a master who can't stand, and Clov, a servant who can't sit, is devoid of the requisite old-married-couple comic affection. Still, Beau O'Reilly as Hamm and Guy Massey as Clov rarely hit a false note, focusing on the script's dark subtext to create 90 minutes of engaging bleakness. Like the equally humorless Matthew Wilson and Teresa Weed as Hamm's nearly dead parents, potted in garbage cans, they've found only three-quarters of the play, but the actors' talents and Beckett's genius still make for a satisfying evening.

Krapp's Last Tape

WHEN Through 9/27: Wed 7 PM

where Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

PRICE $15

INFO 773-539-7838

Happy Days

WHEN Through 10/15: Sun 3 PM

where Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

PRICE $15

INFO 773-539-7838

Endgame

WHEN Through 10/14: Sat 3 and 7 PM. Then 10/21-10/29: Sat-Sun 7 PM.

where Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

PRICE $15

INFO 773-539-7838

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristin Basta.

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