Apparently, I was in attendance at a “Glittering Opening Night”! I wish someone had told me or I might have worn something better than the olive green suit I wore to work. Frankly, while I very much enjoyed being a part of the very first audience ever to plop their fannies into the seats at the MainStage of the new ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, I would hardly have called us a “glittering” lot. But apparently Christopher Marcisz of the Berkshire Eagle found us fabulous, hence the headline.
This was indeed a “soft opening.” There was no hype and hoopla and, while I saw a few photographers, the big guns of the theatrical press were not in attendance. Instead we were a small crowd - most of the theatre’s 550 seats were roped off - and the performance was not sold out. I would estimate no more than 125 souls in attendance. There were some college officials and some WTF types scoping out the facility, but by and large the audience consisted of townspeople and Williams students, dressed in their everyday duds and not looking especially glitzy.
The show, or properly shows, on the boards were far from glittering as well. Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is not known for his Busby Berkeley style extravaganzas! Landscapes is composed of six short pieces by Beckett - Act Without Words (1957/58), Footfalls (1976), What Where (1983), Come and Go (1966/67), Rockaby (1981), and Catastrophe (1982) – none of which called for more than four actors on the stage. While there were a few light moments, overall the pieces were intense and somber, and the audience sat in stony silence, often unable to tell when a piece had ended and applause was in order. Julie Seitel’s lighting design carved the large stage into small squares and rectangles by plunging all but the most intimate playing spaces in utter darkness. The only things I saw glittering were some annoying little lights on the underside of the balconies to my left and right that flashed repetitively. Smoke detectors? Something to do with the complex technical systems in the theatre? I found them distracting.
It takes a true theatre lover, nay even a theatre scholar, to want to engage with the works of Samuel Beckett. They are not mainstream entertainment. I will not get in to what that says about the state of the American educational system, cultural mores, or theatre establishment. But there is no doubt in my mind that the show would have been much more sparsely attended had it not been staged in the new facility. I would have gone anyway since I had a friend in the cast, but I doubt that I would have been so eager had the additional lure of seeing the new theatre not been a part of the package.
“Oh, an evening of Beckett” my mind groaned. But once I was there I had a grand time. Inscrutable and obtuse, there is still no doubt that Beckett was one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. You sit and watch and listen and ponder and you come away enriched, even if you don’t understand what the heck it was you just saw.
In the summer of 2003, I had an irate e-mail stating that I had no right to write about Tom Stoppard’s Travesties because I obviously didn’t understand the play. The work has been one of my favorites for decades but I believe my critic was correct in stating that I don’t begin to understand it. But must one understand a work of art to love it? Are only experts allowed to view art and write about their experiences with it? As a writer, I doubt that even Stoppard himself truly “understands” his works – I know I don’t understand mine and I am a far, far lesser talent. Does that mean that he or I shouldn’t write? Of course not!
I take this little tangent because undoubtedly someone out there is fuming : “If she doesn’t understand Beckett she shouldn’t be writing about him!” On the contrary, it is precisely because I don’t understand Beckett that I should be writing. I would wager that I am in the majority, rather than the minority, and I am not at all sure I trust people who claim to completely “understand” Beckett. I think Beckett was purposely opaque in order to make people think hard about his ideas and themes. In writing about my experience of Beckett’s art I help myself, and perhaps a few others, grapple with his greatness.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Beckett earned his Master’s degree in French and Italian, spent time in Germany, and wrote in English, French, and German. What we see and hear in the English-speaking theatre are often his own translations of works originally written and performed in French and/or German. Surely the English versions were influenced by the production experience on other stages in other lands. Perhaps the English versions are improvements, or perhaps they are made lesser by the constraints of the reality of performance as opposed to the purity of imagination. Even in the silent piece “Act Without Words” Beckett must have rethought his intentions as he translated them.
I am a very wordy writer. I blabber along and every eight paragraphs or so come up with a cogent thought. So it is fascinating for me to contemplate the works of Beckett – a writer who was able to say so much in so few words. The first piece on the program was Act Without Words which has no spoken dialogue at all. On paper it must be one long stage direction. The performers must act without words, which Jenny Chen and Greta Wilson did nicely. Director Jean-Bernard Bucky has placed them way upstage, against the actual back wall of the theatre, revealed in all its cinder-block glory. Seitel has created a long, narrow strip of light in which they perform with minimal props and a shared costume. Each actor emerges from a brown sack to dress and perform her daily rituals to Greg Pliska’s evocative piano score. Part theatre, part dance, part mime, because it lacks words to puzzle the brain “Act Without Words” is one of the more relaxing and accessible pieces of the evening.
Footfalls is a deeply inscrutable piece. Bent almost double, woman named May (Abigail Nessen), the name by which Beckett’s mother Mary was known, trudges nine steps along a veritable line of light, wheeling painfully around at the outer edges of her path. She speaks, the disembodied voice of another woman (Linda White) – her mother? – speaks. Sometimes they engage in dialogue but mostly they utter monologues describing each other and May endless ritual. It is not enough. Whatever May’s pain may be, nothing is ever enough to relieve it. It is a pain that is deeply universal, whether or not we express our personal version of it through movement or some other addictive, ritual activity.
It is not surprising that What Where was originally written in German. In this production costume designer Barbara A. Bell has clothed Bam (Jason Marburg), Bem (Galen Glaze), Bim (Daniel Doyle), and Bom (Spike Friedman) in Nazi-esque uniforms and Bucky has directed them in a military drill through Seitel’s neat columns of light each of which end in a soft square on the stage floor. Each soldier is instructed to interrogate another, demanding answers to unmentioned questions. Each returns to announce that he has not been successful and the subject has been tortured to the point of unconsciousness without revealing the secret, and each is told that he is lying and sent off to be interrogated himself. An eerily soothing voice emanating from a pulsing colored blob of light high above them mercilessly directs each scene until all are destroyed for failing to utter a secret that may never have existed.
In Come and Go three ladies - Flo (LaVonna Bowen), Vi (Alana L. Whiteman), and Ru (Yuliya Tsuckerman) – their faces concealed from the nose upward under the brims of large Edwardian hats, take turns divulging shocking secrets (which the audience never hears) about each other as they each come and go from the scene. Here Bell’s costumes beautifully signify the cloth of propriety we draw across the baseness of everyday life.
Rockaby is a monologue delivered mostly by the recorded and disembodied voice of Linda White, the actress on stage. Seated in a rocking chair and rocking slowly in a gentle pool of light that dims and dims and dims and dims until only her movement and the crystals embroidered on the bosom of her best black dress are visible, White plaintively cries out for “More!” every time the voice concludes its seemingly repetitive piece. “More!” and the voice starts up again with a monologue the same but different, rhythmic, like the rocking of the chair. The lights growing ever dimmer like our senses and abilities as we rock through life never wanting the end to come no matter how dim it grows but always clinging to the thought that there must be more…more…until there isn’t anything at all.
Catastrophe is a completely different kind of work. There are four characters and quite a bit of brisk dialogue and snappy stage business as a Director (Spike Friedman) instructs his Assistant (Estalyn Marquis) in the staging of the perfect Catastrophe with a silent and malleable Protagonist (Toby Schneider) and a sullen and seldom seen technician Luke (Daniel Doyle). Just what is this Catastrophe, represented by one nearly naked man, meticulously posed and lit? That is never explained. This piece plays like Beckett’s gentle dig at directors who impose their will on a writers’ work, creating something other than what the author intended. Creating, perhaps, catastrophes?
You have to be in the right mood to enjoy Beckett. I was and I had a wonderful time. I had such a wonderful time that I was tempted to go back the next night and see “As You Like It” on the new CenterStage, but the production was entirely sold out and besides, I saw and reviewed As You Like It twice last summer. The play I was intimately acquainted with and only draw really was to see the new theatre, which I will do eventually anyway. Probably the audience for Shakespeare in the really new theatre (I knew the second I entered the MainStage that I was in the retrofitted AMT MainStage and not in a brand new performance space) was glittering, or at least slightly shiny, and the evening was more about being seen than seeing. I am glad that I was part of the “glitterati” who went to the theatre to see a play and not each other.
The Williamstheatre production of "Landscapes: Six Short Pieces by Samuel Beckett" will be performed at 8:30 pm on April 29, May 1, 5 & 7 on the MainStage at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Children under 16 will be intensely confused and bored by this production. Call the box office at 413-597-2425 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005