Author Neal Gabler once suggested that the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment tells you how to respond, whereas art simply presents itself as it is and allows you to have your own reaction.
If that's the case, the three short Samuel Beckett plays currently onstage at the Rogue Theatre are some pretty hard-core art.
That's not to say the evening is not entertaining. In fact, much of it is pretty darn funny, thanks to pratfalls, baggy pants and sight gags—when there's a banana peel on the floor, you know what's going to happen. It's just that, in between the laughs, you may notice a distinct uneasiness in your chest.
Existential clowning is par for the course when you're dealing with Beckett (1906-1989), a leading light of theater of the absurd. The Irish playwright is best known for his iconic Waiting for Godot (1953), in which two Chaplinesque tramps squabble and play games as they wait in a wasteland for a mysterious figure who never comes. The play is bleak, haunting and terribly funny.
Which brings us back to the art on display at Rogue. The evening's program consists of Beckett's Act Without Words from 1956, Not I from 1972, and the titular Krapp's Last Tape, from 1958. Each presents a unique challenge to both performers and the audience.
In Act Without Words, Patty Gallagher appears as a nameless Player, dressed like a vaudeville comic. (All the costumes are by Cynthia Meier.) The stage becomes a one-woman wilderness, where the Player is taunted by an unseen presence. She is called offstage, only to be thrown, somersaulting, back on; she's offered water, only to have it raised tantalizingly out of reach. Again and again, she is forced to choose between hope and surrender. But even her attempts to give up are thwarted.
Gallagher makes you realize what clowning really is—and it has nothing to do with red wigs and that familiar, terrifying face paint. It's the ability to make us laugh by turning perspective on its head. Something small, like stacking three boxes, becomes an epic struggle, while something big, like contemplating suicide, is brushed off with a shrug.
She makes her character's hope, determination, frustration, despair and thoughts clear as a bell without—as the title suggests—speaking a single word.
Meier, on the other hand, has the opposite challenge in Not I, a mysterious, opaque and rather frustrating exploration of language and alienation. She plays Mouth: She's surrounded by darkness, and we see only her mouth, in a tiny pool of light.
Mouth babbles on and on, recounting the fragmented experience of a woman who finds herself unable to move, but whose mouth continues to speak. Listening to the monologue is the Auditor (Gallagher), a shadowy, silent, robed figure. The Auditor periodically moves her arms, but whether in resistance, compassion or condemnation, it's impossible to say.
Likewise, it's difficult to judge Meier's performance. Beckett has not only stripped her of any physical dimension; he has given her a text that is intentionally obtuse. I wish that I had been better able to penetrate his language, in order to appreciate the performance underneath. In spite of its recurring phrases and clues, meant to help piece meaning together, Not I largely went over my head.
Joseph McGrath leads the evening back toward bleak comedy with Krapp's Last Tape. Krapp is a withered husk of an old man, and McGrath's arthritic waddle and myopic squint earned chuckles of recognition. His clothing is grease-stained and worn, and too large by half, as if life has whittled him down to nothing.
At a solitary desk, under a single light, Krapp sorts through boxes full of reel-to-reel tapes. They're recordings that he's made throughout his life, recounting his thoughts and experiences. The voice of the younger Krapp is commenting on yet other recordings, from earlier, mocking his own naiveté while he "drowned in dreams" of all that's been lost.
McGrath is captivating as Krapp. Whether he's rapturously peeling a banana, or breathlessly listening to his youthful description of a passing romantic encounter, he maintains his character's reality, as both a cartoon and as a very human being.
Director David Morden deserves high marks for making his involvement in the evening nearly invisible. Each playlet seems to happen organically, as if it were being created in the moment. It takes a lot of work and skill to make something appear so effortless.
When you attend a theatrical work of art like this one, you don't leave whistling a hit song or gushing about spectacular scenery. You ask questions: Like what, for example, is the reason Rogue combined these three unconnected pieces?
Perhaps, together, they suggest the changing perspective of a life: The first play is about frustrated expectation; the second suggests dissociation from the present moment; the last, reminiscence and regret.
Perhaps they're tied together through the theme of language: a body without a voice; a voice without a body; and a man coming to know himself by listening to his own voice.
Perhaps they're meant to illustrate emotional growth: from feeling helpless against an outside force; to feeling helpless within ourselves; to recognizing that our own choices are what have held us back all along.
Or the answer could be much simpler.
A preshow performance of music by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is performed with great delicacy on piano (Harlan Hokin), violin (Robert Villa), harp and flute (Paul Amiel). Hokin writes in Rogue's program notes that Beckett was a fan of Bartók's music, and these short songs have a dark edge to them. If you listen carefully, you can pick out angular dissonances and shifting chromaticism. Yet, at the same time, they are completely open and simple, as if written for children.
Perhaps, like Bartók's music, Beckett's plays simply are what they are. Any additional complications are what you yourself have brought to them.
What will they mean to you? You'll have to find out for yourself.