Let's not mince words, because Samuel Beckett doesn't. In the Irish dramatist's monodrama Krapp's Last Tape, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, John Hurt is perfect. He's shabbily attired in a sleeveless vest, white peasant shirt, baggy trousers and shoes that squeak when he walks.
Michael Colgan's staging for the Gate Theatre, Dublin, offers a lovingly sculpted, slightly whimsical yet discomfiting portrait of a solitary man celebrating his 69th birthday. No birthday cakes here. No candles. Just a couple of bananas that Hurt plucks from one of the drawers of Krapp's rickety worktable, with a single lamp suspended overhead. In the play's first five minutes of silence, he trots arthritically, using a cane, to the front of the desk to withdraw one banana. The ritual of peeling it, tossing away the skin and then phallically holding it in his mouth for a moment or two is part of a clown routine, repeated with a second banana.
The production, staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year after having premiered in Dublin in 1999, shows all the benefits of the kind of international festival treats that have had years to settle in and grow assured. Such assurance lies in the very quality of Hurt's movements. His clowning, if taken too far, would turn frivolous, as though ridiculing the love of a woman whom Krapp rejected, the deep dull ache from the passage of time, and the looming prospect of the grave that lies in Krapp's weary bones.
Within that terrifyingly desolate frame of existence, Hurt crosses the stage with a slight bounce, enough to suggest that the man still has a sense of humor, however bitter than humor might have become. Yet that bounce is sufficiently subtle to preserve the production's core respect for the entropy at the play's heart, at the heart of all of Beckett's plays, poems and novels. That subtlety embodies the difference between aiming for a laugh and a smile.
He walks to the perimeter of designer James McConnell's wash of light, entering a wall of darkness before recoiling, like an old dog. This man, at the eclipse of what would now be called middle age, stands surrounded by walls of darkness, inexorably closing in. We don't actually see those shadows closing in, but that truth becomes unmistakable.
Krapp hobbles offstage to retrieve a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder, a large, dusty logbook and a stack of boxes containing audio tapes. He spends considerable time plugging in the electrical contraption and spooling the tape he was saving for just this occasion. He relishes the word — "spoooooooool" — as though part of a song lyric.
The tape is a recording of himself some 30 years earlier, reflecting on himself at some pinnacle in life, at which his older self sneers in contempt. He listens to these words, from a recorded voice in a lower octave and with more force than his current treble. And he spits out his contempt for the "bastard" he was. He tilts back his head and roars with laughter at the presumptuousness of himself at the age of 39. And yet, he ruminates, perhaps the younger man was right. His younger self describes a moment of erotic contact with that woman: "We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side."
Upon hearing this, the elder Krapp, with his Beckett-like shock of silver hair, leans forward and cradles the old tape recorder — in case you thought our love affair with technical devices, and all that they conjure, was something new. And he stares forward at us, into the darkness, lips twisted in anguish, eyes brimming with heartache.
He spools a new tape and attempts a current entry, which he soon rips from the machine. What is the purpose of words? It's an early testament in Beckett's body of work to the conviction — harrowing for a poet — that perhaps silence is an improvement, more articulate and more to the point of what is, and what is to come.
English playwright Joe Penhall's 2000 play, Blue/Orange, is set in the recovery ward of a London psychiatric hospital. It concerns a trio of characters, starting with the tempestuous relationship between an African-Caribbean patient, Christopher (Frederick Frazier), who clearly suffers from a personality disorder and may well be schizophrenic, and his young physician, Dr. Bruce Flaherty (Matt Freitas), on the eve of Christopher's planned release after 30 days of treatment following some unspecified bizarre behavior at a Shepherd's Bush fruit market.
Based on Christopher's jitters over needing coffee and/or Coke, Flaherty questions whether it would be better to keep Christopher under supervision for further treatment. Frazier's performance underscores the doctor's intuition with a kind of nail-biting tension, blending into cockiness, blending into fits of rage followed by quiet stoicism.
However, Christopher isn't stupid, and he picks up on a certain callow extravagance to his physician's approach: jokes that go too far, repeating too glibly Christopher's phrase "uppity nigger." Christopher may or may not be paranoid, but there's no question he's provoked by his doctor's naive, emotionally erratic behavior.
"You put voices in my head," Christopher will later accuse him, though nobody but Christopher insists that his father is Idi Amin, or that his mother is living in penury in London. Nobody, at least by play's end, forces Christopher to insist that an orange in a fruit bowl is actually blue. So who's right?
Add to the mix the senior consultant, the "expert" Dr. Robert Smith (Jonathan Salisbury), who has any number of motives, some budgetary, to get Christopher back on London's streets. That those streets are populated by aggressive, bigoted skinheads is reason enough to incite Christopher's "paranoia." The world is driving Christopher nuts, compounded by the petty squabbles between his two doctors.
Through the course of the two-act drama, Smith will eviscerate his younger colleague's career, using his own words and behaviors against him in a trial of nerves not unlike that in David Mamet's professor-student sexual-harassment drama Oleanna: Accusations drafted from too-loose lips, twisted into criminal charges.
Unlike in Mamet's play, everyone here has a valid case, a reason for believing what they do, expressed in words fueled by rage at life, by conviction and by chemicals. The meaning in the words themselves — so articulately and poetically expressed by all characters — dissolve by play's end, so all that's left are portraits of persecution, rationalized by all those fluttery, dissembling words.
Blue/Orange is directed by Ty Mayberry, artistic director of a newish company to watch, Player King Productions. It's being performed in the gymnasiumlike setting of the Dance Conservatory of Pasadena.
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A single row of seats circles the stage, which is bathed in Forrest Lancaster's wash of lights. Lighting cues, if they exist, are hard to detect. The play holds our interest with the intelligence of the performances. Frazier's Christopher contains a charismatic, athletic energy. Freitas' Dr. Flaherty is filled with a bluster and has a slightly wobbly dialect, but not wobbly enough to detract. Salisbury's Dr. Smith is a smooth pillar of smugness, contained in the way he looks at opponents, and looks through them.
The corrosiveness of words links Krapp's Last Tape and Blue/Orange. The former concerns all of us passing through time, clinging to old tapes and tropes for meaning; the latter lays on personal ambitions, which makes it a more complicated look at verbiage and its attendant lunacy, but with a smaller breadth. It is, still, a very good play presented here in an absorbing production.
KRAPP'S LAST TAPE | By Samuel Beckett | A Gate Theatre, Dublin, production, presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6 p.m.; through Nov. 4 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
BLUE/ORANGE | By Joe Penhall | Presented by Player King Productions at the Dance Conservatory of Pasadena, 496 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena | Sun.-Mon., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 12 | brownpapertickets.com/event/275545