When a child plays with dolls – whether they be Malibu Staceys or GI Joes – he does so as a way of puzzling out what his life will be like, and the ways in which he will be heroic, successful and happy. When the Aged One (Carter Jahncke) plays with dolls, as he does in The Lost Ones, it must be to find out what his life has been like. It is not a happy experience for the Aged One, but it is an interesting and instructive one for us.
The Lost Ones, here represented by tiny two-dimensional semi-human figures that could have been designed by Salvador Dali, live in a cylinder fifty meters round and eighteen meters high. Their sole ambition, eschatological mission, and religious tradition is to get out. Some seek to get out through niches and tunnels built high up in the wall, which they reach by climbing ladders. The ladders have missing rungs, which have fallen off and which the Lost Ones use for clubs. The tunnels, alas, go nowhere, but it does not deter adherents of the Tunnel Solution, who believe that somewhere up there is a tunnel which will lead them to the paradise that is Earth.
Others believe that the way out is through the roof (but no one has ever been up there). The struggle of the two groups with each other, and the struggle of individuals within the two groups, gives rise to laws, religion, and other means of social control.
Lost One Society is divided into four types: climbers, searchers, the sedentary – those who have retired from active searching and climbing but who are willing to sit on the floor and offer advice – and the vanquished, who are … well, you know who they are. Eventually, Beckett implies, but is careful not to say, we all become the vanquished, bereft of faith and hope, sitting or laying inertly, the living dead.
Jahncke is an actor beautifully suited to playing a Beckett narrator, which is what the Aged One is in this play. Beckett, here and elsewhere, writes in a style which suggests a professor emeritus at a séance, or perhaps an elderly pathologist. Alistair Cooke would have been perfect. Jahncke gives an instantly-recognizable voice to this style, while at the same time remembering to be playful. The noises he makes while tumbling his Lost Ones down the rickety ladders will remind you of every 4-year-old you ever knew who ever put a troop of toy soldiers on the arm of a couch, and blew them up.
This piece, which is not a Beckett play at all but rather a Beckett short story titled “Le Dépeupleur”, was first presented by Mabou Mines in 1974 (You’ll remember them from the haunting Peter & Wendy at Arena Stage in 2007.) He did this show about ten years ago at Scena Theatre, but he and Director Richard Henrich collaborated on a fresh take here. They have some delightful visuals, which I will not spoil for you by describing.
Let me give you a caveat, though. If you are new to Beckett, this is probably not the work with which to make your acquaintance. It is incredibly dense, even for him. I will admit flat out that there were a dozen references which flew right over my head, and I am a big Beckett fan. This article has a detailed analysis of Beckett’s system of symbols in this work. I don’t understand the article, either, but it carried me a little closer to the truth.
Adapted from Samuel Beckett’s short story, “Le dépeupleur”
Directed by Richard Henrich
Produced by Spooky Action Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor