Play It Again, Sam

USF stages four by Samuel Beckett, with impressive results

I don't often review university productions, but when I heard that the University of South Florida was presenting an evening of seldom-produced Samuel Beckett plays, I knew it was time to make an exception. Beckett is one of the giants of 20th-century theater, a writer who ranks with Chekhov, Shaw and Brecht in his importance and influence. But he's also something these other playwrights aren't: the artist as seer or oracle, who seems to have peered into life's deepest recesses, and whose reports from these depths are tortuously difficult and cryptic. One goes to a Beckett play not for conventional entertainment but for an intellectual wrestling match, an opportunity to grapple with grotesque characters in bizarre situations, and possibly to emerge from the struggle with new insight into our condition. One goes to a Beckett play - even to the "easiest" of them, Waiting for Godot - thinking not "This is going to be fun," but "Maybe this time, I'll understand it." And, insofar as a director and actors are on top of things, maybe you will.

Which brings me to the USF production of four short Beckett plays: Play, Act Without Words II, Catastrophe, and Breath. The first of these, Play, is a stunning success, as well-acted and well-designed as any Beckett work I've seen anywhere. This is no small achievement: Play requires three funeral urns in which all but the heads of three actors are enclosed. As a spotlight moves from head to head - in no apparent order - each head speaks: broken sentences, ambiguous allusions, only occasionally a complete thought. It seems that we're in Purgatory with three members of a love triangle, a Husband, a Wife and the Husband's Lover. As the spotlight focuses on one after the next, we're able to piece together something like a story. The Wife discovered that the Husband had a Lover, confronted him (he denied it), went to the Lover's flat and demanded she give up the Husband. The Husband confessed and swore to be faithful, but took up with the Lover again after an interval. Now all three have died, are unaware of each other, and wondering why the spotlight continues repeatedly to demand their confessions. And speaking of repeats: at the end of the script, Beckett demands a complete repeat, as if we were hearing a sonata or concerto. And sure enough, the USF ensemble gives us the text twice, with only minor variations the second time.

And it works. As beautifully directed by Christopher Steele, Play's three actors - Capria Holbrook, Anthony Casale and Brittany McLaughlin - find the individuality of Beckett's characters and communicate, through voice alone, whole personalities, temperaments, attitudes. McLaughlin as the Wife is smug, conscious of her power, not about to be bested by some insignificant tart; Holbrook as the Lover is shrill, nervous, excitable; and Casale as the Husband is a self-deceiving bourgeois, as out of touch with himself as he is with his women. These are humans at their limits: they can't imagine that they're called upon to do anything but confess, and it's just beginning to dawn on them that the afterlife may be as impervious to understanding as was their sojourn on earth. The power of the production is enhanced by its design: the three large urns in which the characters stand are grey and streaked with white, and so are the characters' faces - as if, in death, they've become one with their sepulchers. As for the play's meaning, in this rendition it seems more musical than literal, something to be heard more than understood. And in fact, Play is most thrilling at moments when all three characters speak at once. At these times there's no problem of "not understanding," no possibility of translation; all there is is a glorious dissonance of souls, and it's surprisingly stirring. This is the human music, Beckett seems to be saying: its elements are love and power and betrayal. Listen to these instruments, their endless memories and recriminations. This is the human symphony.

A more literal interpretation seems more germane to Act Without Words II, also directed by Steele. In this solidly presented mime, two men in sacks are alternately goaded by a large hand to climb out of their bags, prepare for a new day, dress and undress and then curl up - again in a sack - for the night. The first man, played by Brian Rich, is religious; one of his first acts out of the sack is to pray. The second man, performed by Ray Walden, is more health-conscious; he's careful to exercise and brush his teeth once he's out and about. But in Beckett's view, both men are stuck in meaningless repetition (a key Beckett theme) while only the goad, which takes on first one wheel, then two, truly evolves. This may be Beckett's reflection on human history: just an endless alternation, from religion to science and back to religion, from classic to romantic and back to classic. What's most dynamic - and most spooky - is that goad waking each sleeper. Is it God, or some superior intelligence from another planet? Is it the same Unnamed Actor who shone the spotlight in Play? Or is the goad simply technology, which develops at top speed while real human progress - the progress of the heart - hardly happens at all? Fine acting and canny direction make Act Without Words II another success, though one that's not nearly as satisfying as Play.

The other two dramas aren't quite as successful. Catastrophe, which Beckett wrote for then-dissident Václav Havel when the future Czech president was a political prisoner, depends for its final, chilling effect on what may seem like a small gesture: an actor, called "The Protagonist," raises his head without being told to. But, as directed by C. David Frankel, actor Rusty Gillespie carries out this defiant act much too subtly, and robs the scene of its pivotal event. As for the last play, Breath, directed by Steele, it depends on an amplified breath - inhale, exhale - corresponding with an increase, then decrease of light. But on the night I saw the show, the breath was nearly inaudible and the light change too rapid to make much sense. At least the newborn's cry that starts and ends the scene is unobjectionable. But Beckett's clear intention here - about all-too-short life - needs to be made more pungently.

Still, two out of four of these short Beckett plays are worth seeing. And the first one - Play - is a minor masterpiece.

In a community that seldom sees any of Beckett's works, that's not a bad percentage.

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