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The Barrow 

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THE BARROW

Chicago Actors Ensemble

I once knew a struggling poet who so idolized T.S. Eliot that everything he wrote sounded like bad Eliot. Judging from The Barrow, Chicago actor, director, and playwright Paul Jones has a similar problem. Only the Great Man whose shadow Jones can't escape is Samuel Beckett.

In almost every way The Barrow looks and sounds like a bad imitation of Beckett, specifically of Waiting for Godot. The story is set in a bleak Beckett landscape, made all the bleaker by Ellen Schaeffer's minimal stage decoration--some sheets of burlap along the back wall, a fine layer of brown dirt on the stage, one dirty gray decaying pedestal to indicate a garden.

A pair of apparently homeless strangers--Zeke and Peabody--meet in the godless emptiness of the stage and talk. Of course Jones has mixed the imagery around a bit. Zeke enters carrying a wheelbarrow of dirt, apparently the last load of dirt his father shoveled before he keeled over--though one can't help thinking of the dirt that gradually covers Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days. Later in the play Peabody drags in a huge trunk, in a manner not unlike the way poor Lucky drags Pozzo in Godot.

The Barrow even contains mock witty banter, vaguely reminiscent of the sort of music-hall patter Didi and Gogo routinely fall into in Godot. Zeke: "After you." Peabody: "No, after you." Zeke: "I insist." Peabody: "Ah, youth. A wonder to behold."

In fact, at first glance The Barrow looks and sounds so much like Beckett that it could pass for a parody. On closer examination, it's clear that Jones has been able to imitate only Beckett's less admirable skills as a playwright.

The Barrow has a plot that's as essentially motionless as Godot's. In Beckett's play two tramps kill time waiting for Godot. In Jones's three lost souls meet--two well-dressed tramps and a woman armed with a shotgun. They talk for a long time about whether, how, and for how much Zeke will fill the woman's empty well with dirt. An hour later, in the second act, Zeke partially fills the well.

But Jones lacks both Beckett's keen ear for dialect--in Godot Pozzo and Vladimir speak very different versions of English--and his Celtic gift for comedy. All three of the characters in The Barrow have identical vocabularies, speak exactly the same bland, genteel version of American English that exists only in grammar-school readers, and chatter on in the same tin-eared, brain-numbing rhythms. (Lydia: "Is that your solution to every hazard? A lid?" Peabody: "Who said anything about a hazard? A well is not a hazard?")

For all his experimentation with minimalist sets and actionless stories, Beckett had a strong sense of character. Jones does not. His three characters are remarkably similar, or rather they are so vaguely and incompletely developed that they seem the same.

Jones's sense of humor isn't very well developed either, consisting mostly of pale imitations of Beckett's physical humor: Zeke's hands are so blistered he cries out whenever he grabs the wheelbarrow. Ha, ha, ha. He also gives us long-winded, belabored comic scenes, such as the one in which Peabody goes on and on about whether Zeke has registration papers for his wheelbarrow.

I don't know how much of the blame I should heap on Jones the playwright and how much on Jones the director. But Jones the director has done little to make his play seem better than it is. If anything, the production's sluggish pace only makes the play seem slower and more tedious.

It doesn't help that his actors don't quite succeed in making his cartoonish characters seem real. Of the three, Gretchen Rumbaugh does the best job of giving an illusion of depth. Though I'm sure it helps that she's the only woman in the play; if Jones had added a second female character I'm sure she would have seemed as much a clone of Lydia as Peabody seems of Zeke. Stephen Spencer (Zeke) and Michael McColly (Peabody) don't do Jones any favors. Both deliver their lines with a kind of stultifying sameness, guaranteeing that even the play's occasional sparkling lines, of which there are a few, seem dull.

Ultimately Jones succeeds in making The Barrow the play reactionaries accused Waiting for Godot of being: a play in which nothing happens.

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