Difficult Krapp

Sluggish pace mars two new theater companies' staging of Beckett

click to enlarge LOOKING BACK: As the title character in Krapp's Last Tape, Steve Garland spends his waning days watching a younger, more vibrant version of himself on videotape. - Courtesy Of American Stage
Courtesy Of American Stage
LOOKING BACK: As the title character in Krapp's Last Tape, Steve Garland spends his waning days watching a younger, more vibrant version of himself on videotape.

The appearance of a new theater company in the Tampa Bay area is always good news, especially when that company demonstrates a taste for meaningful drama. So get happy: Julie Rowe's "Quirky White Chicks Productions" and Harry Richards' "Renegade Theatre Project" have combined to bring Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape to American Stage, where it will play through Aug. 6 late nights and on Sunday in the early evening.

More good news is that American Stage artistic director Todd Olson has informed Rowe and Richards that they may mount further productions in months to come, so long as those shows don't interfere with the mainstage schedule.

Will Bay area spectators show up at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights to see modernist classics by Beckett, Ionesco or any of the other 20th-century authors whose works we've been missing? Are local residents curious enough about the contemporary repertoire to buy tickets to challenging and often problematic plays? There's certainly room in St. Petersburg for another theater company. But whether there's an audience for its offerings is not yet clear.

Unfortunately, Rowe and Richards haven't much helped their cause with their current production, which first played a few weeks ago at the [email protected] Krapp's Last Tape is a densely suggestive work about loneliness and regret, aging and lost chances, love, ambition and solitude. It shows us a single, 69-year-old figure — the Krapp of the title — who has boxes full of videotapes on which he has kept a regular journal. (In Beckett's original, it's audiotapes, not video that Krapp has used to record his life). Playing back one of the tapes, Krapp watches himself at 39, when he was characteristically cutting ties with another lover and planning the creation of a major literary work. As he listens to his younger self push love aside in favor of a brilliant writing career that will never materialize ("Seventeen copies sold ... Getting known," says the older man), and as we compare the decrepit figure on stage with his robust younger version, we come face to face with our own senescence and the strange disjunction of our now and our then. What have we thrown away in the service of the unpredictable? Is there any hedge — in love, or family, in religious faith or service to others — against the stark deterioration that's debilitated Krapp? Is it possible to live such that old age doesn't turn us into wretched, regretful beings like this crusty old crank?

These are some of the questions we might be asking — if the current production would only permit it. But there are a couple of big things wrong with this Krapp's Last Tape, and they keep us from responding to Beckett's text with heart and soul. The first problem is speed: as directed by T. Scott Wooten, this one-man show moves at a glacial pace, making an already knotty script frustrating and hard to bear. Yes, Krapp is old and should shuffle around the stage with difficulty; but what's most difficult in this production is how a mere nine pages of text (in the published version) has been made to take all of an hour and a quarter. Actor Steve Garland looks and sounds the part of Krapp, and I suppose that in some reality his efforts might last 75 minutes. But theater isn't reality, and watching a performance this sluggish, we can't help but feel exasperated.

Then there's the problem with the sound quality of — and acting on — the videotape. I should mention first that the very best thing in the production — the one effect that hits us instantly and powerfully — is the sight of old, wizened Krapp in his dark little office watching young, vigorous Krapp on video. This simple juxtaposition speaks volumes about life, about the pricelessness of youth and the mystery of our inexorable aging. But the younger Krapp's lines are exceedingly important. It's in this taped monologue that we learn about three key moments in Krapp's life: the death of his mother, a principle-changing revelation on a stormy day, and, perhaps most important of all — Krapp plays the tape back for a second listen — an afternoon with a lover in a boat.

All three are essential to our understanding of the play, and all three are lost to us because the video's sound isn't always crisp and Garland's performance is too undifferentiated. The death of Krapp's mother is a case in point. Krapp admits, briefly, that he sat "wishing she were gone" just moments before seeing a nurse wheeling a "funereal perambulator" (reminding us of the line in Godot: "they give birth astride of a grave"). He then admits that no sooner had he learned of his mother's passing than he gave a black ball away to a dog, a ball which "I shall feel ... in my hand until my dying day." The black ball, at this moment, is the symbol of his mother's death; a symbol which he characteristically refuses to own. (He also, not irrelevantly, has broken off every romantic relationship he's ever been in.) The revelation in the storm is also important, but for a different reason. Though it's not given sufficient weight in the current production, Krapp admits here that it became "clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most —." He abruptly stops the tape, leaving us to imagine the sentence ending with words like "precious possession." The statement is important because it might be Beckett speaking, explaining why most of his plays after Godot — in which a tree sprouts a few leaves, after all, and Godot might come — will be so unrelievedly bleak.

Finally, the romantic encounter in the boat, played and replayed, may have been Krapp's last real chance for love in his life. But "I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on and she agreed without opening her eyes." It's this recorded memory that features the tantalizing lines, "We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side." For once in Beckett, there's the slightest hint that we may live in a purposeful universe. But Krapp has fled from the possibility; and as a result we find him alone and probably dying, attended by nothing but memories.

There's more to the play than these three special moments, but in Wooten's staging we're never encouraged to look for anything specific. At least the (uncredited) set is thinkably the office of a failing housekeeper, with its cramped-looking desk space, confusion of boxes and single bright light. But like that light, this production leaves most things in darkness. If Wooten has any interpretation of Krapp's Last Tape, I have no idea what it is.

And still I'm optimistic about the new production combine that's bringing us this important play. Other area theater groups — Jobsite, Hat Trick and Salerno come to mind — have also started shakily before moving on to laudable work. If Rowe and Richards are tenacious enough — and I'm guessing that they are — we may yet find their company a source of pleasure and illumination.

Tote this one up to experience; and hold out for more Beckett — and for all the other modern heavyweights who just might be making a comeback on local stages.

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