Samuel Beckett challenges our intellect, explores our foibles and offers a tragicomic view of the human condition. UMO Ensemble’s remarkable tribute to his genius, which recently played at ACT Theatre, captured all of this, but in an unexpected manner that might have delighted him as much as it delighted contemporary audiences.
UMO performers combine acting with acrobatics and aerial feats. In “Fail Better: Beckett Moves UMO,” they climbed ropes, swung from them, balanced on a teeter-totter, made love on that adult seesaw, and dragged heavy human burdens. It was a visual delight and an intellectual teaser. As did Beckett, they left you to figure the meaning. Here Beckett’s absurdity, cerebral explorations and physicality were met with great skill, dexterity and wit.
Although the troupe had requested permission from the very tightly controlling Estate of Samuel Beckett to use parts of 10 Beckett texts, they were allowed use of only a small portion of a single work, “The Unnamable.” Fortunately that was enough. Using that text as a base, the cast, led by director Elizabeth Klob, brainstormed. They looked for themes that arose from those paragraphs, identified archetypal Beckett characters, then devised positions, movements, and dialogue that they would perform to address the issues Beckett raises in his prose, poetry and plays. They call it “a Beckett Scape through the lens of UMO.”
It all took place on Jon Schroeder’s set, one that might have been designed by the artist Magritte. A tiny chair sat in a high alcove; a long teeter-totter balanced on a fulcrum. Crossing high above and dropping down was a continuous rope suspended on two pulleys. The actor playing the writer (one assumes it’s meant to be Beckett) sat still higher at his writing table. James Bigbee Garver’s sonorous sounds that floated in and out of the space and Chris Frickland’s sophisticated lighting heightened the mood.
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This is most assuredly an ensemble piece. Each of the five multi-talented actors (Terry Crane, Maria Glanz, David Godsey, Janet McAlpin, and Lyam White) played one or more of Beckett’s archetypal characters. They wove in and out of this surrealistic environment in Beckett fashion— going on, going on, going on.
It was a mesmerizing production, one that gave its audience the sense that they had indeed entered the world of Beckett, if not into his mind itself. Sadly, it was over all too soon.