Beckett Duo: Krapp’s Last Tape and Ohio Impromptu
By Samuel Beckett
Produced by Spooky Action Theater
Directed by Richard Henrich
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
In a shabby room, a disheveled, impossibly old man (Carter Jahncke) sits behind an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder. He is searching through his pockets for something, but as he is nearly blind it is heavy going. Finally he finds what he’s looking for: a set of keys. Laboriously he pulls himself up and undertakes his next mission, walking stiff-legged to the front of the table so that he can ransack the locked front drawers. Eventually he discovers the object of his five-minute struggle: a banana. He looks at it rapturously; he caresses it; he pulls off the skin and tosses it aside; and he greedily sticks half of it into his mouth. Then he freezes. He’s forgotten what he was doing. Recovering, he cautiously paces from one side of the stage to the next. He has excellent shoes (Ellen Mansueto does great costuming here). Finally, one of them steps on – well, you understand why Beckett didn’t have him eat an orange.
Hunger satisfied, he consults a sort of master list. “Box three, spool five,” he says. He likes the sound of the word “spool,” which he sounds out. Spooool. Spoo-ooo-ool. You understand: he is insane, as well as half-blind and senile. He puts on the tape, and we begin to listen to Krapp, as he was thirty years ago.
This is Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a meditation, somber and profound, on memory and loneliness. There are perhaps half-a-dozen actors in the Washington area who could make it work. Jahncke is one of them, his voice grave and eloquent as he sits ruined before us, recounting his happier days. It has been Krapp’s practice, lo these many years, to make an audio diary, and as the play opens the superannuated Krapp seeks down a tape made many years ago, in the aftermath of the evening he made love to a beautiful woman on a boat. The younger Krapp recounts himself, lying sated against his lover’s breasts. “We were motionless,” he recalls, “while beneath us, all moved, moving us.”
Well, that’s all crap to the present-day Krapp, who rejects his younger self’s lyrical moment with a series of oaths and half-completed sentences. He has his sexual longings satisfied through the services of an elderly prostitute. It is impossible not to remember that Beckett lived through World War II, a seminal moment in human history, and that the lessons learned in Auschwitz and Dachau fundamentally redefined what it was to be a human. In the years before the war, it was possible to imagine life was humane, dignified and full of meaning, as the younger Krapp did; but afterward the forces of anger and disruption prevailed, and the present-day Krapp is full of venom and despair.
Krapp’s Last Tape is a devastating portrait of modern man, myopic, demented, and furious, particularly with his younger self, who believed in so much. Jahncke and director Richard Henrich make this man real. When we hear the younger Krapp foolishly declare that he would not live those days he spent in the arms of his mistress again, Jahnke’s face turns into such a mask of remorse and regret that it seems like the years between the two men melt away.
Ohio Impromptu introduces Krapp’s Last Tape. It is one of Beckett’s later pieces, written for a symposium on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. Like Last Tape, it is a story about loneliness, but it lacks the larger piece’s bitterness. A reader (Henrich) and a listener (Jahncke) sit at a table in identical long black coats. They wear their grey hair past shoulder length and look at the table. The reader tells a story about someone who has lost his beloved; as a result he moves away from the place “where we were so long alone together” to Swans Isle in “a last attempt to obtain relief.” In time a stranger comes by to tell the sufferer a story; we do not hear the details of it, but it appears to provide the bereaved with some succor. As the reader tells this story the listener periodically raps the table; this causes the reader to stop, reread the last couple of lines, and move forward. At the end, the listener gives the reader such a look of grim resolution that it is immediately apparent that he is the bereaved, and the reader is the stranger.
Something has happened to Spooky Action. Over the past few years it has quietly become a serious place to see good theater. Beckett isn’t everyone’s taste, but if it’s yours, you can be assured that it will be done skillfully and intelligently here.
Running Time: 1:05. There is no intermission between the two plays.
When: Fridays through Sundays until November 23. Eight o’clock on Fridays and Saturdays; two o’clock on Saturdays and Sundays.
Where: Black Box Theatre at Montgomery College, corner of Chicago and Philadelphia Streets, Takoma Park, Maryland.
Tickets: $15; call 1.800.494.TIXS or go to the website.