At West of Lenin, a diverse, invigorating collection of four short plays from Samuel Beckett kicks off the Seattle Beckett Festival, a citywide collaboration between arts organizations to present the work of the innovative late Irish playwright and novelist.
Each of the four plays in West of Lenin’s program “Life = Play” showcases Beckett’s inimitable flair for enigmatic scenarios and highly precise theatrical structure. They are cerebral and playful at once, making for an evening of theater equally entertaining and challenging.
The lineup’s showcase piece is its longest and last, Beckett’s own French adaptation of the solo play “Krapp’s Last Tape” (“La dernière bande”), directed and performed by M. Burke Walker, with English supertitles.
Much of Beckett’s work blurs the line between comedy and tragedy, and the disheveled, grizzled Krapp doesn’t neatly conform to either. The man eventually settles down to listen to a recording he made of himself 30 years ago, scoffing at the fool his younger self was, but not before Beckett indulges in a prototypical banana-peel joke.
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Walker is mesmerizing in the role of a seemingly self-assured man who becomes disarmed and eventually beaten down by his own memories. He crumbles before our eyes, his conception of self unspooling into an empty shell like the tape running on his recorder in front of him.
That kind of disintegration is also seen in “Rockaby,” in which Susanna Burney stars as an old woman in a rocking chair, her inner monologue playing out via prerecorded narration.
Among the four plays, “Rockaby” best exemplifies Beckett’s carefully controlled sense of language, as the poetic narration continuously doubles back on itself, achieving a droning, hypnotic quality with Burney’s affectless delivery.
The repetition of phrases like “time she stopped” and “another living soul” continue as the woman wastes away before our eyes, desperate for human contact but helpless to realize it. Director AJ Epstein’s shifting lighting design is frighteningly good, subtly stripping years away from Burney until she has the pallor of a corpse.
If you prefer a little more overt humor with your existential despair, the evening’s opener, “Act Without Words Part I,” should fit the bill. Carol Roscoe directs the pantomime, in which a man finds himself stranded in a desert, an unseen force cruelly playing tricks on him as the tantalizing prospects of shade and water are just out of reach. The delightful Ray Tagavilla plays like a combination of Buster Keaton and Wile E. Coyote in his futilely energetic performance.
Epstein also directs “Come and Go,” a carousel of gossip among three women (Kate Kraay, Kate Sumpter and Rachel Delmar) that requires highly specific physicality and rigidly realized stage direction. This production feels a little loose and casual, but that’s hardly enough to detract from a very promising festival launch.
The Seattle Beckett Festival continues with sporadic production through the fall, presented by Sandbox Radio Live, ACT Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Book-It Repertory Theatre and other theater groups. More information: seattlebeckettfest.org.
Dusty Somers: firstname.lastname@example.org