Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Through March 5, 2017
The late playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett did not make things easy for his audiences. He was first of all an arch-minimalist, reducing his works to the barest possible form. He often eschewed plot, multiple characters, dialogue or hope, concentrating on people who somehow find a way to go on, even while facing the pointlessness and miseries of their lives. (The one exception to this rule is Waiting For Godot, where there is a richness of texture to hold our interest.) But the great and good among our scholars and critics assure us that Beckett is indeed a great playwright. I keep trying to agree with them, but without success — except for Godot.
Four of the five short pieces in this collection are brief and fragmentary. In Act Without Words II, the lights come up on two shapeless figures wrapped in plastic garbage bags. A masked, black-clad man (Norbert Weisser) enters bearing a long staff resembling a gigantic arrow. He prods one of the figures (Alan Abelew) into wakefulness, who then partially emerges from his plastic wrappings to look around disconsolately, take a pill, fold his hands in prayer, and silently mouth the words, “Help me!” Eventually he rises, clad only in his underclothes. He goes to a pile of clothes nearby and slowly puts them on. Since that seems to be the only activity in his day, he takes them off again and climbs back into his garbage bag. The masked man then prods the other figure awake, and she proves to be a woman (Beth Hogan). She climbs out of her bag, accompanied by catchy rinky-tink music, then brushes her teeth, combs her hair, and proceeds to put on the same clothes the man has taken off. While he seems to be desolate, discouraged and hopeless, she is all vim and vigor, radiating optimism. But her day is no more eventful than the man’s. She then removes the clothes and climbs back into her bag.
In Come and Go, three women (Diana Cignoni, Sheelagh Cullen, and Hogan), dressed in pastel shades of pink, blue and yellow, sit on a bench. They share a whispered secret, which is either scandalous or horrendous (we never hear it). Then one suggests that they hold hands, and they do, forming a pretty tableau.
Catastrophe begins with a black-robed man (Weisser), standing on a white platform, in what seems to be a theatre. A woman, perhaps the producer (Hogan), enters and barks orders at an attendant, perhaps a stage manager (Abelew). She tells him to lose the black robe and whiten the man’s feet, hands and bandaged balding pate, and he responds each time with, “I’ll make a note of it.” After giving further orders to the offstage light man, she and the attendant depart, leaving the man standing on the platform staring bleakly into space. (Director Ron Sossi refers to this in a program note as Beckett’s only political play. So perhaps the man is a political candidate, having his image groomed. If so, one feels he would certainly have lost the election.)
Footfalls features a woman in a drab peignoir (Cignoni) who paces on an upstage platform, audibly counting her footsteps. She is apparently the caregiver for her offstage invalid mother (Cullen). She offers mom various services, to which the mother always replies, “Not yet. It is too soon.”
At the end of the act, there was polite applause, but the audience seemed mainly perplexed. And at least four audience members did not return after the intermission.
The second act was the more substantial, consisting of Krapp’s Last Tape, a monologue performed by Weisser with rich affectionate detail. In it, an elderly man listens to tapes of his reminiscences. He recalls a bench by a weir and throwing a black rubber ball for a dog. He declares he will never forget the feeling of the ball in his hand, and says he might have kept the ball, but he gave it to the dog. He remembers a woman he made love to in a rowboat, but hotly denies that he wants to relive any of it. He eats a couple of bananas, then slips on one of the banana skins, inspiring a few scattered chuckles. I thought perhaps he would die, to provide a decisive ending, but he just sits, staring sadly into space.
Director Sossi’s production is polished and assured, and the actors perform impeccably. I wanted to like it, I really did. But I just couldn’t manage it. Maybe Beckett is an acquired taste which I never acquired. Or maybe I’m just a Philistine.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; added performances on Thurs., Feb. 16, and Wed., Feb. 22, 8 p.m., through March 5. (310) 477-2055. Running time: One hour and 45 minutes with an intermission.