BWW Review: BECKETT5 Shares the Playwright's Bleak Absurdist Style in Five Short Plays
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is widely recognized as one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, and is best known for his play Waiting for Godot which launched his career in theater. He then went on to write numerous successful full-length plays including Endgame in 1957, Krapp's Last Tape in 1958 and Happy Days in 1960, as well as several short, one-act plays. While his plays may not be for everyone, Beckett's works capture the pathos and ironies of modern life, yet still maintain his faith in man's capacity for compassion and survival no matter how absurd his environment may have become.
For those who appreciate his mind-challenging work, now is the time to get your tickets to see the KOAN Unit's BECKETT5, a quintet of darkly humorous, seldom-seen short Beckett plays at the Odyssey Theatre through March 5, 2017. Alan Abelew, Diana Cignoni, Sheelagh Cullen, Beth Hogan and Norbert Weisser star in the compilation of plays, each a splendid example of Beckett's mastery of minimalist structure. Following is a brief description of each play in the order they are presented.
ACT WITHOUT WORDS II is a short mime play with three characters, none of whom ever see or speak to each other. Performed without any scenery, A and B (Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan) are asleep in their own sleeping bags, here represented with two large plastic garbage bags. Each is goaded to awaken individually by an unseen force, here represented by a man dressed in black who wields a long arrow to poke them awake (Norbert Weisser). A and B awaken dressed exactly the same and proceed to put on the same set of clothing, then take the pieces off and set them neatly folded next to the other character's bag for easy accessibility when they awaken. As such, although they never meet, they carry each other through life. My feeling is this is more likely hell, especially at the end when A assumes a praying position and mouths "Help me." But like most Beckett plays, one can count on allusions to such eternal questions as "who am I?" "what am I?" "what the hell am I doing here?" and "am I even here at all?"
COME AND GO is described as a "dramaticule" on its title page and contains only 121 words, considered by critics to be one of the playwright's most "perfect" plays, especially since Beckett agonized over each individual line until they exactly matched his creative vision. The play centers on three women who meet on what appears to be a park bench, each saying only a few words before rising to allow the other two to speak to each other. And while there is no way for the audience to understand what each of the conversations pertains to between the women, the three actors (Diana Cignoni, Sheelagh Cullen and Beth Hogan) dressed similarly in lovely shades of pastel dresses with hats pulled down over their eyes, seem to be able to communicate with such simple language, then hold hands, stand up and leave the stage. It is a puzzlement for sure.
In CATASTROPHE, a director and his assistant (Alan Abelew and Beth Hogan) prepare an aged man (Norbert Weisser) for a public spectacle for political reasons, although we never quite know for what purpose or punishment. In fact, to me it seemed as if the characters were an artist creating a statue with his agent advising him on what works best for the total presentation, which they finally agree upon before we hear the applause of an unseen crowd. Perhaps you will see something even different! One of Beckett's only politically-themed works, and perhaps his most optimistic, it was written in 1982 and dedicated to then-imprisoned Czech reformer and playwright, Václav Havel.
FOOTFALLS features just one character onstage, May (Diana Cignoni), wrapped in tatters and pacing back and forth "like a metronome" on a strip of bare landing outside her dying mother's room, with Sheelagh Cullen playing the part as an unseen character whose voice is heard from offstage. Surely anyone who has had to deal with a parent enduring the end stages of dementia will appreciate the frustration and emotional torment May is enduring just for "doing the right thing." Chu-Hsuan Chang's evocative lighting design during May's offstage food preparation scenes, during which she is seen as a shadow in a spotlight on the wall, create quite breathtaking moments.
KNAPP'S LAST TAPE features Norbert Weisser in the title role in the evening's centerpiece play in which the elderly and ailing Krapp sits at his desk and prepares to listen to audiotape diaries he made thirty years earlier. Weisser's overly emotional reactions to what he is hearing on the reel-to-reel tapes are the highlight of the evening given his skill at pantomime and rubbery facial expressions. Beckett's theatrical poem, one of his most personal works, is infused with his history, emotion and an abiding sense of irony as he captures the weight of regret for missed opportunity and lost love.
The plays are directed by Ron Sossi who has led the Odyssey through its 48-year history, often challenging audiences with his interpretation of classics as well as lesser known plays. While Beckett's plays may puzzle and outrage many theatergoers, I encourage you to open your mind to the many possibilities of what is being presented and enjoy discussing production elements with others afterwards as a way open your eyes to seeing things in different ways!
Performances of BECKETT5 take place through March 5 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Two additional weeknight performances are scheduled on Thursday, Feb. 16 and Wednesday, Feb. 22, both at 8 p.m. Tickets are $34 on Saturdays and Sundays; $30 on Fridays; and $25 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with discounted tickets available for students and members of SAG/AFTRA/AEA.
There will be three "Tix for $10" performances on Friday, Feb. 3; Thursday, Feb. 16 and Friday, March 3. Post-performance discussions are scheduled on Friday, Feb. 10 and Wednesday, Feb. 22. The third Friday of every month is wine night at the Odyssey: enjoy complimentary wine and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show.
The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.
Photos by Enci Box and Ron Sossi