Watching a Beckett play is like hearing a joke while having a tooth pulled. The odd mixture of pain and humor leaves one uncertain of whether to chuckle or shriek. At Raw Space, director Tim O'Leary was an exquisite sadomasochist. In his hands, Beckett's A Piece of Monologue, Act Without Words II and Not I had the audience snickering at the absurdity of life while lamenting the emptiness of existence. These weren't always easy plays to watch, but the first-rate cast made the experience a dark treasure.
A Piece of Monologue presents an unnamed Speaker who narrates someone's life story, perhaps his own. Beckett's themes immediately emerge: loneliness, desperation, alienation. In the hands of a lesser actor, these ideas and their continual recitation could bewilder and confound the audience.
But when Roger Hendricks Simon ruffled his brow in confusion, or grinned with delight, or became overwhelmed with gloom, it seemed a better interpreter of Beckett could not be found anywhere. Simon compelled one to watch, yet more importantly, compelled one to think and feel. Simon's balance of humor and sadness was consummate, and made this first play a prize.
Act Without Words II says more with no dialogue than any five Broadway plays combined, and proclaims its message louder than if it used a bullhorn. This piece is Beckett at his finest -- spare, thoughtful, potent. Two mimes, A, played by Bruce Lloyd, and B, played by Jim Williams, appear first inside canvas sacks. Prodded - literally - to move, A makes his way out of his sack, prays, then goes about his routine of dressing, eating, and working. After A finishes and returns to his sack, B arises to do much the same. Their personalities are distinct, yet their lives are equally pointless and futile. Both Lloyd and Williams performed as Beckett wrote - with humor and tremendous skill.
In 1972, when Jessica Tandy premiered in Not I, she complained that the play was oft-unintelligible. Beckett replied, "I'm not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect." Indeed. The inability to communicate and the uselessness of words are emphasized in all of Beckett's work, but Not I carries less of the slapstick and comedy than, say, Waiting for Godot or Krapp's Last Tape. As a pair of disembodied lips prattle (in this case those of Shelley McPherson, wearing glowing lipstick and standing behind a darkened screen), a figure dressed in a black robe stands to the side, raising his or her arms and pulling them back "in a gesture of helpless compassion," as Beckett instructed. The performance did little more than repeat what had already been expertly explored in the first two works, though the effect was mesmerizing. McPherson had a practiced voice that demanded attention, and she got it.
Lighting, important in any play, is especially vital in Beckett. Colin Bills did a stupendous job, as did Scott Schreck with his spare set. Jennifer Moeller's costumes also deserved praise, adding the right touch of elegant, if ruffled, simplicity. Tim O'Leary's direction was superb, adding a hint of humanity and dignity to works which could otherwise lapse into pessimism or anger.
Make no mistake - Beckett isn't always easy to understand, or even enjoy. His plays offer more questions than answers, and his themes are difficult - perhaps painful - to consider. But these are supremely important works, and in the hands of this cast and crew, they offer a sure guide into Beckett's sad humor and uncompromising worldview.
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Copyright 2000 Ken Jaworowski