Samuel Beckett

Havel: The Passion of Thought

Havel: The Passion of Thought

Potomac Theater Project (PTP) has assembled an evening of political theater, presenting three short plays by the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel, who went on to become the country’s president, and bookending them with shorts by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. The five plays together are given the title Havel: The Passion of Thought, and are all directed by PTP founder and coartistic director Richard Romagnoli.

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Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot feature image

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins with a declaration of futility. Estragon, one of the play’s tramps, attempts to remove an intractable muddy boot and despairingly announces, “Nothing to be done.” This sense of existential desperation pervades the New Yiddish Rep production, performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. Director Ronit Muszkatblit’s version has to be one of the bleakest in recent memory. While the approach may not appeal to casual theatergoers, Beckett devotees will find much to savor.

Richard Saudek plays Lucky in the Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett’s  Waiting for Godot.  Top, from left: David Mandelbaum as Estragon and Eli Rosen as Vladimir.

Richard Saudek plays Lucky in the Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Top, from left: David Mandelbaum as Estragon and Eli Rosen as Vladimir.

Performing the play in Yiddish (Shane Baker has provided the translation) makes a great deal of sense because Godot can be viewed as a post-Holocaust response. Beckett was in the French Resistance, and he began writing the play just three years after the end of World War II. The monumental inconceivability of human cruelty, the Holocaust, and nuclear destruction pervade the text, and life, as reflected in the play, is senseless and completely expendable. As one of the characters says, people “give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

The production also draws on rich Yiddish performance traditions. Pre-show and intermission music includes Yiddish cabaret songs, and the pair of tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Eli Rosen and David Mandelbaum), verbally spar with the cadence of early 20th-century Jewish comics and Borscht Belt comedians.

As the pair waits for the elusive Godot, they devise ways to pass the time. Yet unlike with other productions, Muszkatblit and her cast have not thoroughly mined the play for laughs. In the characterizations by Rosen and Mandelbaum, mustering even momentary amusement proves to be an impossible endeavor. They are simultaneously dependent upon and bored with each other. As Estragon says, “There are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part.” But like a couple in a codependent marriage, they bicker, hurl insults, and temporarily make up. This is their life, hour by hour, day by day, ad infinitum.

Pre-show and intermission music includes Yiddish cabaret songs, and the pair of tramps verbally spar with the cadence of early 20th-century Jewish comics and Borscht Belt comedians.

Their tedium is temporarily disrupted by the appearance of the arrogant landowner Pozzo (Gera Sandler) and his docile, bonded servant Lucky (Richard Saudek). Pozzo literally throws Estragon a bone, and Lucky provides a brief entertaining interlude. Even that becomes unbearable for the tramps. And when the boy (alternately played by Noam Sandler and Myron Tregubov) arrives at the end of each act to inform Estragon and Vladimir that Godot will not appear, the news is met with a collective shrug. 

The effect generally works, but at times the leisurely pace and (for non-Yiddish speakers) alienating supertitles can be wearying for the audience, partly because of the central performances. Individually, Rosen and, in particular, Mandelbaum offer convincing and moving portrayals, but as a tragicomic duo, they do not always seem to be in sync. Their banter sometimes seems rather hesitant, and their physical comedy (such as lifting dead-weight bodies and trading bowler hats) can seem a bit under-rehearsed. They lack, for instance, the natural, easy timing that other clowns (Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, to name just two) have brought to the parts. Granted, Rosen replaced another actor right before the show opened, so the pair still may be finding their rhythm.

Mandelbaum and Rosen as the tramps in Beckett’s existential tragicomedy. Photographs by Dina Raketa.

Mandelbaum and Rosen as the tramps in Beckett’s existential tragicomedy. Photographs by Dina Raketa.

Sandler’s Pozzo is not a force of nature as one often sees, but his downplayed, almost offhand abusiveness is frightening in its ordinariness. As Lucky, Saudek is scarily good. Oppression and cruelty have sucked the life out of the character, but when ordered to dance and “think,” he is able to summon the remaining vestiges of physical and intellectual presence. Saudek’s slow-build then unstoppable first-act monologue is a coup de théâtre.

George Xenos’s tattered costumes and minimal scenery provide a dash of theatricality and creativeness: the play’s fundamental set piece, a tree—or is it, as the characters debate, a bush? Or maybe a shrub?—is the skeleton of a patio umbrella. Reza Behjat’s lighting is similarly effective, and the primary lighting effect, the moon rising, is engineered by the boy, who hangs a crumpled, illuminated globe from a visible wire.

Yiddish theater appears to be making a long-awaited New York comeback. (The acclaimed Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof is set to reopen Off-Broadway in a few weeks.) And while this Godot may not be the revelatory production theatergoers have been awaiting, it offers an intriguing new perspective on a familiar and well-worn play.

The New Yiddish Rep’s production of Waiting for Godot plays through Jan. 27 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 East 14th St. at First Avenue). The play is performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. Evening performances are at 7:30 Monday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased by calling (646) 395-4310 or by visiting www.newyiddishrep.org.

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On Beckett

On Beckett feature image

Aficionados of the bleak works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett may want to pay a visit to the Irish Rep’s production of On Beckett. But be advised that a passion for the author is a helpful prerequisite. Actor-comedian Bill Irwin takes a deep dive into the works of the Nobel Prize–winning playwright—he calls it a “personal memoir.” Irwin proves a trustworthy guide through several of Beckett’s works, from the world-famous Waiting for Godot to the obscure work Stories and Texts for Nothing.

At the start, Irwin says wryly, “My knowledge of Samuel Beckett’s work is deep. In places.” One of those places is Waiting for Godot, a peak of modern dramatic literature. Irwin played Lucky in the 1988 Broadway production with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and he shares a story or two about it; the character of Lucky is mostly silent except for a burst of energy in a rambling five-minute speech. In a 2009 Broadway revival he played one of the two tramps, Vladimir, to Nathan Lane’s Estragon. Even though Irwin may be best-known as a silent clown like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, his dramatic bona fides are also rock-solid. He won a Tony Award in 2005 as George, opposite Kathleen Turner in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All those talents come into play in On Beckett.

Bill Irwin indulges in baggy-pants clowning for his performance of  On Beckett ; it contrasts with the grimness of other passages (top).

Bill Irwin indulges in baggy-pants clowning for his performance of On Beckett; it contrasts with the grimness of other passages (top).

At the Irish Rep, Irwin performs on a nearly bare stage, and most of the show is a solo turn. (For the last moments of Godot he brings on a young actor, Finn O’Sullivan, who plays the boy who appears at the end of both acts to announce that Godot isn’t coming, but he will be there the following day.)  

Irwin addresses the minutiae of Beckett scholarship, starting with pronunciation. Is the title character pronounced God-OH or GOD-oh? (The British prefer the latter pronunciation; the former is generally American.) He says that he used to pronounce it the American way until the Broadway production, directed by the British Anthony Page.

“Why does this writing call me?” he asks. “All I can say is we were taught to emulate Socrates—my generation—good liberal arts citizens. Taught to emulate Socrates—except for the suicide—and the gay sex—but we were urged to examine our lives—lest they be found not worth living.”

While Irwin eventually tackles Waiting for Godot, he delves into the much less-known Texts for Nothing, a series of numbered prose monologues, bringing out the poetry and the bleakness in the works:

The graveyard, yes, it’s there I’d return, this evening it’s there, borne by my words, if I could get out of here, that is to say if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, to know exactly where would be a mere matter of time, and patience, and sequency of thought, and felicity of expression. But the body, to get there with, where’s the body? It’s a minor point, a minor point. And I have no doubts, I’d get there somehow, to the way out, sooner or later, if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come, the other words, sooner or later, and the power to get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the beauties of the skies, and see the stars again.

And Irwin’s analysis of this long passage is as erudite as you’d find in a college seminar:

Those last lines echo the final lines of Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno—as the characters climb back up from Hell: “And so we came up and once again beheld the stars.” And that line is the epigraph in William Styron’s book Darkness Visible—A Memoir of Madness. About severe depression. “Darkness visible” is a line of Milton’s, from Paradise Lost. There seem to be some shared touchstones for all who have descended to a hell, and returned.

Irwin discusses the importance of various hats used by Beckett characters. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Irwin discusses the importance of various hats used by Beckett characters. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

To leaven Beckett’s grim worldview, Irwin brings spoonfuls of sugar with his own expert clowning into play. He dons baggy pants, an oversize coat and various hats—a boater, a bowler (standard issue for the tramps in Godot) and a porkpie, among others. Physically, he slouches, wambles, and stands straight, and at one point does a classic bit of business involving pressing a button at a podium that purportedly makes the podium rise or descend. There is no mechanical apparatus, of course: he is creating the illusion through his own extraordinary physical grace.

On Beckett is a perfect marriage of actor to material. Irwin loves it, and one can’t imagine a better guide, with more insight, into the touchstones of modernism that Beckett created.

Bill Irwin’s On Beckett runs through Nov. 4 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd St., Manhattan). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.

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Happy Days

Happy Days

Samuel Beckett’s ironically titled Happy Days echoes the same vein of his jaundiced view of mankind’s fate as the line from Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Happy Days concerns Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in a huge sand dune in Act I, and up to her neck in Act II. It’s a deft physical characterization of dying: the earth reclaims each of us from the moment of birth, and slowly we return to it.

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Winnie and Willie

The Theater of the Absurd is a daunting prospect to the entertainment-seeking theatergoer—it requires the unconscionable appeal of, say, Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, whose season of Absurdist Theater last year brought Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land to Broadway. As Beckett decimated man's relationship to God and Pinter eulogized the doomed existence of memories and mind, audiences who had seen the X-Men movies or Lord of the Rings happily received their dose of British strangeness through the familiar faces of their beloved English thespians. Accordingly, this year, the Flea Theater’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days stars husband-wife team Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub, and through their familiar faces, they feed us that unfamiliar brand of the absurd.

Happy Days is insistently strange, as is director Andrei Belgrader’s conception of it; the premise of Beckett’s absurdist play holds that Winnie (played by the sparkling Brooke Adams) is stuck waist-deep in the Earth, while her husband Willie (Ms. Adams’ real-life partner Tony Shalhoub) is free to wriggle and struggle in a hole behind her. Sorrowful antics ensue as Winnie eventually reconciles herself to her happy entrapment. Winnie’s seemingly mindless babble—which we come to realize is a kind of coping mechanism, as well as the hidden engine of the play—is what she herself calls a “great mercy,” adding that “what one can bring up, one brings up all.”

Ms. Adams electrifies Winnie’s disillusioned musings on life’s slow passage; the otherwise strange and somber dialogue is rendered alive and active, so much so that even during Winnie’s particularly existentialist speeches, we find commonality in her persistent contentedness. Her pearly, infectious smile and rich, languorous voice hook us to our seats, as does the expressive grayness of her wide, limpid eyes. Her face is a performer all by itself since we only see her from the waist-up, and we rarely, if at all, see Willie’s face; Ms. Adams’ changing features are the only actors on stage that anchor us to Beckett’s dialogue.

Winnie’s props are an umbrella and a black bag that she takes significant comfort in—they are seemingly ordinary personal effects, but they take on a surreal life of their own as she meticulously presents them to the audience and proceeds to use them. She brushes her teeth, wipes her glasses, and shapes her fingernails in front of us, taking great pains in the doing. It is here, in these diurnal little acts of the everyman, that the ordinary theatergoer finds Beckett’s modern-day relevancies. He creates metaphorical meaning in the bland rituals of the everyday, and gives unsuspecting life to our possessions, shaming us for our grasping materialism but also identifying with us. Today’s encroachment of technology into our quotidian conventionalities is much like Winnie’s overweening attention to her lipstick, her toothbrush, her umbrella, her gun, or Willie’s penchant for reading aloud from the newspaper, or looking at erotic postcards (one of the few activities given to Willie, which Mr. Shalhoub soaks with comedy.)

Director Andrei Belgrader makes the production hum with a social and emotional dystopia that portends the end of life in more ways than one. Beckett’s dry observations (“the Earth is tight today” and “there is so little atmosphere”) are bleakly elemental, and even environmentally aware (a reference apropos of modern troubles.) The sun-bright lighting that trains on Ms. Adams’ captured form like many blinding spotlights is “the great heat” that Winnie spiritually beckons with the words “Hail Holy Light!” The set is a positive marvel of minimalist design—the yellow-brown hill that Winnie crowns and crows over slips into a depression behind her, shielding Willie from the sight of his wife, but not the sound of her voice. A panorama of blue skies contributes to the ostensible optimism of the production, all courtesy of scenic designer Takeshi Kata.

Yet, even with the magnitude of her role (Peggy Ashcroft called Winnie “one of those parts that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at Hamlet—a ‘summit’ part”), Ms. Adams minimizes her presence cleverly at times, watching the audience perform their laughs and silences just as we watch her slip in and out of her happy tragedies. Mr. Shalhoub, earthy veteran of stage and screen, is a discreet comedic presence, but his wife is the very symbol of theatrical emasculation as Winnie, and we can only pity Willie and laugh at him for his dazed benightedness. The happy days that the two share are peppered with Beckett’s discomfiting (yet deeply personal) existentialism, but the powerful, character-driven performance of Ms. Adams makes this a must-see for any complacently content theatergoer.

The Theater of the Absurd ran until July 18 at The Flea Theater (41 White St. between Church and Broadway) in Manhattan. For more information, visit www.theflea.org.

 

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