Saturday, April 5, 2014

Beckett takes a selfie

Steven Barkhimer as Krapp. Photos: Marc S. Miller
You could argue, I suppose, that the Fort Point Theatre Channel's effort to find a companion piece to Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape was very much of the millennial moment.

For Krapp basically amounts to a Beckett selfie, as its title character shares most of his author's attitudes and obsessions - and even bits of his own biography. Moreover the hero's habit of listening to his own life on tape clearly parallels Beckett's dramatic technique: Krapp even describes his taping ritual as a process of "separating the wheat from the husk" - and that's Beckett in a nutshell. As if to seal the deal, the Nobel prize-winner noted that the play's time frame was "a late evening in the future" (meaning his future).

Hence the desire, I suppose, to find a millennial selfie for the FPTC double bill "Reel to Reel" (which runs through tomorrow at the Factory Theatre).  Or rather - to be specific - a "woman-centric counterpoint" (FPTC's dreadful words, not mine) to this much-loved classic.

I know- ugh.  I'd much rather see one of the several plays Beckett wrote for women (Happy Days, Rockabye, Not I, Footfalls, etc.) - or Krapp himself performed by the right actress (I believe Billie Whitelaw did a version, and just btw, the play's premiere was designed by a woman, Jocelyn Herbert). To be honest, the lazy assumption that Beckett is somehow "gendered" or "sexist" just makes my teeth hurt - but on the other hand, as a feminist beard for sneaking a production of Krapp's Last Tape onto the boards, I guess this is a small price to pay.

And the good news is that this version, helmed by director Marc S. Miller, and showcasing local legend Steven Barkhimer as Krapp, proves a persuasive one. I've seen plenty of Krapps, and over its history the piece has attracted many a celebrated interpreter; John Hurt did a wanly literate impression some years back, while Harold Pinter was far more harsh, but wheelchair-bound; Brian Dennehy, for his part, conjured a broken bear staring at the bars of his cage. The definitive version, slightly shrill but deeply tragic, remains Patrick Magee's - Beckett wrote the role for him, and his performance, thank God, was eventually preserved by the BBC (the whole thing is up on YouTube, below).

At FPTC, Barkhimer approaches Krapp as the ruin of a somewhat-self-aware clown, which is hardly wrong - although it does lead to a slightly exaggerated version of the famous opening schtick with a banana. (To be fair, Beckett's well-known love affair with silent film clowns has led many an actor down this path.) But after this slight stumble, Barkhimer rights himself and settles into a quietly devastated groove, nailing moment after moment; I'm tempted to call this the most profound piece of acting I've seen on a Boston stage this season. Likewise Miller's direction is subtle, Rick Dorff's set is apt, and in a masterstroke, Ian W. King's lighting sends reflections from the rotating tapes over Krapp's tormented face, where they flicker like passing thoughts. In short, a memorable production on almost every count.


Patrick Magee, the definitive Krapp.

As for the companion piece, Skylar Fox's The Archives - well, with apologies to Ed Siegel, I'm afraid this was a fool's errand, but the results prove quite a bit better than I thought they were going to be - but does that count as a good review? I happen to be an acquaintance of the author, the rather-fantastic Mr. Fox, a talented young impresario (currently a student at Brown), who once wrote a one-act for the Boston Theatre Marathon that I still refer to as the funniest thing I have ever seen on a stage. He's also a driving force behind the ambitious (and well-regarded) Circuit Theatre Company; if I had to bet on our next rising theatrical star, he'd be on the short list.

So I was unsurprised to discover how cleverly he had updated Beckett in The Archives: here Krapp's last tapes have been discovered by a millennial mother-and-daughter team (at a tag sale, no less!). Sensing their import as the record of an entire life, they attempt to digitize them, musing on their own biographies in the process.  (There's also a librarian of a certain age on hand who coincidentally was a key player in Krapp's life - or lack thereof.)

Allison Smith builds The Archives.
These are quite brilliant gambits - and it's really no insult to say that any young author looks thin next to Samuel Beckett. But alas, it must also be said that Mr. Fox's cleverness can't quite vault him beyond the limits of his generation. Next to Beckett's broken poetry, Fox's millennials can only offer the likes of "Oh my God, I hope I like never regret any of these awesome life choices!" or lyrics that go "A thing is still a thing, it's just a thing, a thing . . ."  Ah, yes: the unnameable . . .

The upshot of all this is that we leave musing on the dearth of great playwriting today, and its possible causes. Krapp's Last Tape, for instance, is built on a Joycean epiphany of the cruelest kind, as its hero slowly paints himself into a harrowing vision of the waste of his own life. Indeed, you could argue that Beckett is basically attacking his own unconscious narcissism - for tellingly, when Krapp hears his taped voice announce an overwhelming artistic vision, he dismissively skips ahead - to listen again to a poignant memory of gently rocking with his lover in a punt. This, it seems, is the "wheat," while the grand artistic vision was just "husk" - which makes Krapp's Last Tape an unusual kind of selfie, to be sure.

But such an attack is all but verboten in the millennium, in which the modes of narcissism constitute our grounding cultural assumption, our lingua franca. Thus epiphanies (and tragedies) are impossible - and even though Mr. Fox nods toward satire as some aesthetic compensation, he doesn't dare actually go there (and a last-minute epiphany from a member of Krapp's own generation can't quite bridge that gap).

Still, none of this is actually painful because, as I said, we're impressed by the author's strategy, if not its outcome, and he has an ear for dialogue, minute-to-minute - and his cast likewise proves appealing.  Director Tasia A. Jones draws solid work from newcomer Allison Smith (above right) as the young archivist, and Sally Nutt captures a ruefully ironic tone as the librarian who assists her; meanwhile if Karin Trachtenberg struggles a bit more with the role of the troubled millennial mother, you sense that's because Fox has left at least one too many lacunae in her character. In the end, one leaves the efforts of all these well-intentioned young people convinced that their faults lie not within themselves, but in the stars of our current culture.

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