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What in Godot's Name? 

Is doing Beckett by the book better than taking liberties with the famously controlling writer's texts?

Wednesday, May 9 2007
One of the first things directors learn when approaching Samuel Beckett is that you don't mess with his plays. During his lifetime, the punctilious Irish dramatist was famously hostile to theater companies that dared to deviate even in the tiniest ways from his texts. When director Andre Gregory made alterations to the stage directions in Endgame, Beckett threatened a lawsuit. The playwright railed against a production of the same work directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. He principally objected to Akalaitis' decision to set the play in an abandoned subway station, the addition of a musical overture by composer Philip Glass, and the inclusion of two black actors in the cast. "Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me," Beckett wrote in his program notes for the production, which opened at American Repertory Theatre in spite of its author's misgivings.

Beckett died in 1989, but he maintains his militancy from beyond the grave. Managed by Beckett's nephew Edward, the Beckett Estate seems to be as protective of the author's words as the playwright ever was. The Estate has threatened legal action against many companies for such infractions as adding hip-hop interludes to Waiting for Godot and daring, as one Italian company recently did, to cast the same play with female actors in the roles of Vladimir and Estragon.

Performers Under Stress (PUS) has yet to receive a cease-and-desist letter from the Beckett police. The San Francisco-based ensemble (which decamped from Chicago a few years ago and takes its name from a line from Godot — "it's never the same pus from one moment to the next,") specializes in producing Beckett's work alongside stagings of original plays and makes a point of cherishing the author's posthumous wishes. "It should be stressed we don't seek reinterpretations of his works," director Scott Baker told me in a recent e-mail. "We believe Samuel Beckett gives the performer everything needed in the text." PUS's presentation of six short Beckett works under the whimsical, Dr-Seuss-inspired title "Sam I Am" clearly demonstrates a passion for the playwright's words and respect for his wishes — at least to a point.

To some theatergoers, Sam I Am probably represents Beckett's plays as they "should" be performed. That is, in as unadorned a fashion as possible. Staged using ramshackle props and costumes against the threadbare backdrop of a recently converted garage at 975 Howard in SOMA, the production's very setting seems to dramatize the playwright's taut-shoestring world view. As soon as one cast member roughly hauls the tatty white stage curtain strung up with a piece of twine to the side of the small performance area, we know we are in an austere, no-frills world whose only currencies are mouths uttering syllables and bodies moving in space.

Meaning is always elusive in Beckett's work. What sense there is, exists somewhere in the counterpoint between the chaos of the world and the precision of the author's words. In the most engrossing moments of Sam I Am, the razor-sharp meticulousness of the cast's movements and speech fill the bare husks of Beckett's plays with whispering meanings and bittersweet wit.

As the ghostly May in Footfalls, in which a spectral mother and daughter share memories, Valerie Fachman haunts a tiny strip of stage. Dressed in a disheveled nightdress, the actor pads backward and forward along an invisible line conversing with her past or, perhaps, with the very present voices in her head. Each step is delicate and yet there's an insistence and purpose to her every footfall. She's a physical embodiment of Eliot's Prufrock, measuring out the minutes and the years with coffee spoons. The three actors in Play (Sharon Sittloh, Fachman, and Brendan Scoggin) — as well as spotlight operator Baker — handle the intricacies of one of Beckett's most technically demanding works (in which three deathly talking heads stuck in massive urns rehash the details of an adulterous relationship to the dance of a nervous spotlight) with spitfire attack. The accuracy of the actors' movements in both Footfalls and Play fires our imaginations, giving shape to Beckett's opaque utterances.

It's because of the performers' ability to execute Beckett's language and movement with unfaltering accuracy that we're able to laugh at and feel sorry for Scoggin as the character in the mimed Act Without Words I (whose attempts to carry out the most basic tasks fail thanks to a conspiring universe). It's also why we're able to feel fear and resentment at the two officials played by George Epsilanty and Skip Emerson in Rough for Theatre II as they assess the life of a man on the brink of suicide. But anything short of perfection and the taut shoestring of the playwright's worldview snaps. This happens several times in Sam I Am. Ironically, for a company as deferential to Beckett as is PUS, the production loses its focus at the points where the company fails to comply with the playwright's wishes.

Beckett wrote Stirrings Still in 1988 as a prose piece. But PUS can't resist testing the limits of Beckett's holy writ by attempting to transform this abstract third-person monologue, whose narrator appears to be floating somewhere between existence and its opposite, into a work for the stage. Something gets lost in translation. Baker, who managed to obtain permission to do Stirrings Still by promising a barebones approach, performs the piece himself as a glorified staged reading with minimal movement and lights. But there's very little in the rambling speech upon which to hang a performance. The actor gets lost in the contorted, meaningless syntaxes and so do we. We're left obsessing about two things — why Baker chooses to stage such an unstageable work at all, and what, in Godot's name, provokes him to do it in a moth-bitten white wig.

PUS also takes liberties (again, with the Estate's permission) in turning the Kafka-esque radio drama Rough for Radio II into theater. The piece, in which two bureaucrats interrogate a man for reasons neither he nor the audience ever discovers, unfolds before our eyes as a shadow play with four actors performing in backlit silhouette behind a white scrim. Though the staging conceit is initially novel, it soon becomes dull. Conceived for the aural medium of radio, Rough provokes the imagination with its aggressive sound effects ("Swish of a bull's pizzle"; "thump with ruler," etc.). But adding a visual dimension to these effects makes them too literal and, as a result, less frightening and disorienting.

If the experience of watching Sam I Am teaches us anything about theater, it's how little control an author really has over his work. In general, this is a good thing. With her fallout shelter aesthetics, Akalaitis made Godot meaningful for a post-nuclear age. And the world became a poorer place, I believe, when Beckett and his heavies stopped Ingmar Bergman from producing a film version of Godot. Then again, unflinching accuracy is essential to the performance of Beckett's plays. Each pause is loaded. There's meaning in the actor's every breath. To gloss over these elements is, in a way, a greater kind of heresy than creating a radical but possibly ingenious reinterpretation of the author's work. With Sam I Am, PUS demonstrates great respect for Beckett but, paradoxically, perhaps not quite enough.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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