April appears to be the month of celebrating locally not only cherry blossoms but playwright Samuel Beckett. There are three notable productions in town. Scena Theatre has just presented The Beckett Trio, a remarkable tour de force of three solo works with local actress Nanna Ingvarsson. Shakespeare Theatre Company hosts Ireland’s Druid Theatre in Waiting for Godot; in Europe, it’s being hailed as the best Beckett production in twenty-five years. Here, Arcturus Theater Company gives us a suitably stripped-down pairing of Beckett’s Play and The Old Tune.
Many people argue that Beckett is the most important playwright of the twentieth Century. He defined dramatically a central metaphor of a world that can be destructed by a finger on a button (and how real that seems now in our positively absurdist society!) He and a handful of other directors influenced by his own productions have also created a performance style that revolutionized an actor’s process. By stripping down relationships and often wiping faces (and voices) clean of emotional involvement, Beckett has made us all stare into everlasting nothingness.
I wanted to take in all these productions to explore Beckett’s landscape. Here is last night’s experience.
In a residential neighborhood in Arlington, one approaches a nondescript brick building. The door is locked, and it turns out if you leave the space, it locks again. There is no way in (and we imagine no way out.) Upon entering, there is a crammed entryway. The performance space of what is Arlington Woman’s Club could be a grotty church basement but in fact takes place on the ground floor with one of those proscenium stages suitable only for elementary-school sized bodies.
The metal chairs are wicked hard. The only emotional satisfaction is that the actors must use the same.
Even the program feels Beckettian. All matter stripped away. No director’s statement. No dramaturgical background. No bios with film and TV credits by the actors.
The audience is greeted by drawn paper heads set on various pedestals and vase-like urns. There are also three giant urns on stage. The most arresting element is that on the back wall and also running the full length of the side-wall is a painted mural of hundreds if not thousands of little heads. On close inspection they all seem to share an expression of cadaverous agony with mouths agape. This art installation, by Rosemary Feit Covey, couldn’t present a more impressive or fitting a design. It’s a dour landscape– like a catacomb of bodiless skulls or purgatory itself.
Two women and a man enter the stage ten minutes before the scheduled start time, sit, and stare out. Only their heads appear from behind the three giant urns, undecorated except for a few ivy trailings. The people stare out, motionless. Their faces seem craggy and sculpted out of the earth itself. They neither engage with each other or us. Eerie. Unnerving.
Play snaps on with the sound of a clunky spotlight. The trio begins the rapid fire, sometimes flat, delivery of a Beckettian stream of consciousness. Company members Margeaux Martine and Cristen Stephansky are joined by Greg Jones Ellis to represent a kind of eternal love triangle: the wife (W1), the other woman (W2,) and Man(M.)
Play and The Old Tune
closes April 26, 2018
Details and tickets
The situation unfolds, hitting all the points of the classic situation as each one of them stares out into eternity, trapped in reliving and telling a tale we all know too well. Man has affair. Wife suspects and confronts. Man denies. Wife sets detective on to spy and confirm. Wife confronts mistress. Wife threatens suicide. W1 and W2 spar and deride each other. Man confesses. Man renounces lover. Man takes up with lover again. Wife suspects…
It’s all so tawdry and terribly, terribly sad. But as they repeat the entire story three times, inflections change ever so slightly as does the speed of delivery. Faces, up to this point immobile, shift in nuanced degree. W1 cocks an eyebrow. Eyebrow becomes an exclamation point and adds irony. M apologetically grins to get our sympathy. W2 laughs a staccato laugh that cuts through the air like an AK 47 spraying lethal bullets.
The situation becomes ludicrous as language and the taking of turns break down further, interrupting and fracturing even words. Audience laughs then falls silent. Will none of us ever be free of such stories?
These guys are good, really good. The style seems right. The only slips seem to be coming from the ‘follow spot’ operator, who can’t keep up with moving his one instrument to catch the passing of perspective stories. The squeaky old machine doesn’t cooperate. Occasionally this throws the actors off, and the machine becomes another player, sometimes wildly chasing across the space, “guessing” to catch the next speaker.
That doesn’t stop Martine, Stephansky and Ellis from riding Beckett’s gorgeous music at a gallop.
Arcturus Theatre Company is a bare bones operation, and the ensemble emblemizes the stripped-down style of Beckett. “We were not long together,” M says and repeats as a kind of litany. We have not been together long in the space either, yet we have experienced a Beckett eternity.
Director Ross Heath has directed the second show, the radio play The Old Tune even more stripped down – as a reading. Two actors sit on metal chairs and carry their scripts from which they will read. Just before the show, the tech director walks across the stage and points to a light he wants turned on. Lighting operator complies. (Later tech director will also perambulate between stage and audience, and we realize he has become a character when one of the actor’s tries to stop him and ask him for a light.)
The Old Tune is Beckett’s radio play from 1960. Here the playwright once again has explored a classic relationship: two very old, old friends helping and sometimes challenging each other’s memory. They are Mr. Gorman and Mr. Cream and they are sitting outside, close to the curb. (Remember that mural of cadaverous skulls? Suddenly through the magic of theater (and a primitive light source) the heads transform.)
The men’s conversation is interrupted when fast motorcars zoom past, and they follow the speeding new technology with somewhat disgruntled consternation. There are other interruptions, pauses in the conversation, to convey the way synapses fail, and both men sit in “idle” for some time until the spark catches again.
With delicious Irish accents, their voices rise and fall like the murmuring of a gentle brook, as they recall old friends, family members, and events long gone. “I was a “foot” (foot solider) in ’93 or was it ’96?” They work out that the Big War came later, World War I that is. The only thing that really happens is that one of them pockets the other’s “fags” (cigarettes,) and his plumped up pride makes him beam satisfactorily from time to time.
Phil Bufithis and Bernie Cohen are very good indeed. Whether presenting the work as a “reading” came as a first choice for the director or was necessitated by a last minute cast change, I was reminded how older actors have so much to give and are not given enough opportunities to share their talents in our youth-crazed society or world of theater.
No one does aging with less sentimentality than Beckett, staring dry-eyed at the running down of life. Perhaps he was always what they call “an old soul.”
The small under-attended, obviously under-supported ensemble deserves better as do these wonderful characters.
A luminary D.C. director once pronounced to me at a reception, “There are companies presenting theater by sticking two chairs on stage. You can’t do real theater on a wing and a prayer.” Sorry, dah-ling, Arcturus Theater Company has done just that. With a little help from Sam.
Happy, birthday, Sam. You would have been 116 on April 13th.
Beckett’s Play and The Old Tune both by Samuel Beckett . Directed by Ross Heath . With Greg Jones Ellis, Cristen Stephansksy, Margeaux Martine, Phil Bufithis and Bernie Cohen . Produced by Arcturus Theater Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Beckett’s Play and The Old Tune by Arcturus Theater Company. Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Ross Heath. Design/Art by Rosemary Feit Covey.
Produced by Arcturus Theater Company. With Greg Jones Ellis, Cristen Stephansksy, Margeaux Martine, Phil Bufithis and Bernie Cohen.
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: One hour and ten minutes without intermission