“Stay,” the dying beloved tells her lover, “where we were so long alone together. My shade will comfort you.”
But of course he does not, and instead moves to a single room in a place where two rivers join to form a third. And from there he walks to the banks of the river and back. One day another man appears, with a commission from the dead beloved: to read to him until there is no more left to read.
But because this is Samuel Beckett, what appears before us is one man (Buck O’Leary) swaddled in black, with long stringy grey curls obscuring his face, reading this story to another man (Kim Curtis), similarly clad, similarly be-curled, who listens silently, periodically interrupting his reader by rapping his knuckles on a table. Then the reader will begin again, sometimes at the same place, sometimes somewhere entirely different.
Beckett Trio, Part 2
closes May 5, 2019
Details and tickets
This is Ohio Impromptu, and it leads off Scena Theatre’s second Beckett trilogy. The first trilogy, three one-actor plays which featured the incandescent Nanna Ingvarsson, were difficult to access but full of dramatic tension. This trio is considerably less accessible, and swaddled in entropy to boot.
Beckett wrote Ohio Impromptu at the request of a scholar who was organizing a seventy-fifth birthday party for him in 1981. Beckett admitted that the play was to some degree autobiographical, in that it came out of the musings he had about how he would feel if his wife of forty years died. And you could be forgiven if, listening to O’Leary deliver the text in his voice-of-God basso, you thought that maybe his character was in fact the man delivering the message from the dead, and that Curtis’ character was the dead beloved’s lover.
And why the title? Some scholars speculate that Beckett was making a play on the old riddle, what is zero on both sides and tall in the middle by asserting that birth and death were “zeros” and only life was the high ground.
Or it could have been the fact that the celebration he wrote it for was being staged in Columbus, Ohio.
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness,” Beckett once said. Still, I wish he would have stained silence and nothingness a little more than he did in Come and Go, the second of the Beckett trilogy. Vi (Jen Bevarelli), Flo (Ellie Nicoll) and Ru (Lewshá-Camille Simboura) sit on a bench in spectacular dresses of red, purple and green, respectively. (Kudos to costume designer Mei Chen, especially for the extremely cool ballerina-type shoes). Their wonderful little hats sit securely over their eyes, which combine with the dim lighting to render vision improbable.
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They talk…incredibly slowly. In monotones. With enormous gaps between their lines. “Just sit together, as we used to, in the playground at Miss Wade’s,” Flo says. It is an evocative sentence, if it didn’t take her thirty seconds to say it.
Eventually, each woman leaves in her turn, and the other two speculate about her. It appears that there is a terrible secret about each one, which only their companions know. Had this play been done in real time, there might have been some dramatic significance to it. But at this pace, and with these inflections, it appears as though the characters have stumbled on a stash of first-rate Quaaludes (TM), and that the secrets, whatever they are, are secondary.
Is this glacial pacing one of Beckett’s requirements? I am looking at Gay McCauley’s 1966 review: “Samuel Beckett’s latest play, Come and Go, lasts only three minutes in performance and a considerable part of this time is taken up with silence or whispering that the audience is unable to hear.” The Scena version, on the other hand, lasts at least fifteen excruciating minutes (I didn’t time it, but that is my sincere belief), which means that director Robert McNamara elected to pump up the play with more silence and nothingness than even Beckett contemplated.
McCauley’s review says something else interesting: “Three old women sit on a bench, remembering their past, conversing in blank, almost inaudible voices, filling in the present with an almost meaningless routine of getting up, going out, returning and sitting down again.” Near the end of their lives, McCauley suggests, they hold on to each other as they wait for the inevitable end.
But Nicoll, Bevarelli and Simboura are young women, and McNamara makes no effort to make them appear older. Thus we get no sense that the endless no is imminent, and we are awash in a sea of ambiguity. The characters, blank and disengaging, mean nothing to us.
Beckett dedicated Catastrophe to the playwright Vaclav Havel, who eventually came to be president of the Czech Republic but who was at the time a political prisoner of the Soviet machine which ran his country. And the play is a little more political than the other two, although not nearly as political as the four plays which make up the Pinter quaternity, running in rep with the Beckett trilogy.
A man (Curtis) stands on a platform. He is in obvious distress: barefoot (his left foot is twisted, with his toe above the ground), with a big hat hiding his hanging head, his hangdog expression. An assistant (Bevarelli) is making a presentation to a Director (O’Leary). Behold the man, she says in essence, and the Director then intends to improve on the man.
Lose the hat, he says. The assistant complies. More nudity, the Director demands. The assistant opens his collar, rolls up his pants, displays his reddened knees. The man shivers, but it is of no moment to the Director. He wants a spectacle.
And when she gets everything right — “There’s our catastrophe!” the Director shouts, delighted that his man-turned-mannequin has come to symbolize the fall of the common man, and the affirmed superiority of the aristocracy of arts, of politics, of the military, of business, of whatever. But in the last moments, when the lights go down, our mannequin raises his human face, and out of his eyes shine intelligence, compassion, dignity, and everything that reminds us that human beings are not catastrophes.
If we consider Beckett’s plays as a continuum with Endgame being his most accessible and The Lost Ones (the play involving tiny plastic men attempting to escape a pit) at about the midpoint, the three plays which McNamara selected for this production are toward the darker extreme. The requirement of the production — and, ultimately, the director — is to make them clearer and more accessible. Scena did so beautifully with its first Beckett trilogy. Sadly, it has not been as successful here.
Beckett Trio, consisting of Ohio Impromptu, Come and Go, and Catastrophe, all by Samuel Beckett, directed by Robert McNamara, assisted by Anne Nottage, featuring Jen Bevarelli, Kim Curtis, Ellie Nicoll, Buck O’Leary and Lewshá-Camille Simboura . Sounddesigner: Denise Rose . Lighting designer: Jonathan Alexander . Set designer: John D. Antone . Costume designer: Mei Chen . Fight director: Paul Gallagher . Stage manager: Mavonte Johnson . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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