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Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Time for Catastrophe

THE IDEA OF A CIRCUS invites grotesque imagery, as demonstrated, in movies, at least, by the likes of “La Strada,” “Saboteur,” and “Nightmare Alley.” As a context for the plays of Samuel Beckett, it underscores the vaudeville aspect that informs many of those plays as well as reinforcing the playwright’s unique use of language. Circus talk is perfunctory and hortatory. The Ringmaster (Ethan Botwick) who led the audience into Troy’s cavernous Gasholder Building wasted no words in directing the crowd to the attractions, including a half-dozen playing areas and a concession area offering popcorn, cotton candy, and appropriate libations.

John Romeo in "Krapp's Last Tape."
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This was actually a return to the circus for the historic structure, which spent 25 years as the winter home for the Oscar C. Buck sideshow companies that toured the country back in the day. But I’m sure that Buck could never have envisioned Beckett as the entertainment’s backbone.

The Gasholder was the setting for “Catastrophe Carnivale: An Evening of Beckett Shorts,” the opening show of the second season for Troy Foundry Theatre, a company that gypsies around the city to present its shows in unusual and appropriate venues.

It’s an approach that resonates with a question posed by the young Beckett: “Must we wring the neck of a certain system in order to stuff it into a contemporary pigeon-hole, or modify the dimensions of that pigeon-hole for the satisfaction of the analogymongers?”* The pigeon-holes  here answered to no one. Center stage, so to speak, was “Krapp’s Last Tape,” a monologue piece that pits an old man against a tape recording of his 30-years-younger self. It’s got the vaudeville flavor of Beckett’s more famous “Waiting for Godot” in that the process of self-examination is riddled with absurdity. Krapp has a banana; Krapp lovingly unrolls its skin; Krapp eats the banana, not so lovingly; Krapp slips on the banana peel.

John Romeo brings a clown’s sadness to his performance, but keeps his Krapp free of bathos. It’s his 69th birthday. He’s a man hounded by time, including the time it takes to unlock and relock the many cabinets in which his stuff is stashed. Among them, a massive open-reel tape machine, vintage enough to qualify as a steampunk accessory.

There’s a long stretch without words, and when Krapp finally speaks, it’s to play with the word “spool,” referring to the reel of tape he seeks. Beckett knew the power of vocal silence, especially in the heightened context of theater, and crafted a pair of short plays titled “Act without Words,” both of which were presented in respective tents. Both plays pit their characters (one in I, two in II) against a hostile environment in sequences conducted in mime. Following the playwright’s instructions is the key to success; there’s always a temptation to try to enhance and improve, and the vocalizations and wasted movement added to “Act without Words II” took away from the starkness of its impact.

You find yourself wishing for more silence in “Catastrophe,” however, a brief piece exploring a manifestation of totalitarian-style control. In this case, it’s whittled down to four players. The Director (Joe Quandt) is making persnickety tweaks to the look at the Protagonist (Joe Sleaseman), who is cloaked in black with his head obscured by an oversized hat. The nervous Assistant (Alexandra Tarantelli) makes the demanded changes – or notes the ones that can’t immediately be realized. The Director is impatient – there’s a caucus to attend – and the manipulations are small, and therefore all the more dehumanizing. Quandt, in furs, is imperious, but there’s a small sense of panic and insecurity. Not enough to let Tarantelli’s character relax her guard, thus giving a dynamic to their relationship that plays out in any arena where power is wielded for its own sake. Director David Baecker had a small and awkward space to work with, but the limited size helps ramp up the impact. When Sleaseman finally is allowed to turn his gaze on the spectators, it’s as if time is standing still, letting us take in the countenance of the victim lurking within us all.

Time was interrupted for Krapp. The long one-act was broken into four parts to allow the audience to visit, as smaller groups, the other exhibitions, which included “Act without Words I,” “Come and Go,” and “Play.” Where silence informed much of the work presented here, “Play” throws us an excess of verbiage. Three people in funeral urns – a Man (Devin Burnam) and two Women (Raya Malcolm and Robyn Belt) – face forward and speak, with astonishing speed, at first together and then unbraided into individual thoughts and phrases. Each face, while speaking, is illuminated by a small spotlight; thus, the light prances quickly. It seems to be an inquisition; there was a marriage, an affair. The dialogue gives the characters affect as it hurtles by, a cumulative power that takes us from belligerence into regret. And it’s literally cyclical, as the actors are instructed to repeat the short script just before its coda. “All this, when will all this have been ... just play?” asks the Man at one point, even as we sense that he’s in no place where such a question can matter. The actors, working with director Katie Pedro, did a virtuoso job on this piece.

We ended in another pool of regret, this time as Krapp continues to relive a thirty-year-old moment, his face rheumy with regret. “Perhaps my best years are gone,” his younger voice tells him. “When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back.” Romeo’s face did little. His posture said much. His transformation, from banana-wielding clown to heartbroken old man, was described by intimate gesture and a carefully controlled face. David Girard directed, and the long, fruitful association between director made this a culminating moment of that partnership. Girard is also artistic director of Troy Foundry Theatre, and obviously has thrown down the gauntlet in proof of where theatrical production can go in this theatrically conservative area. We need more catastrophes like this one.


* from “Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress,” 1929.

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