Profound B.S.

A new company called Rorschach Productions has put together a sequence of short plays that constitutes one of the more interesting evenings of theater around. It's a combination of late-ish Samuel Beckett and very early Sam Shepard titled An Evening of B.S.

In the first piece, Beckett's Catastrophe, a director issues orders as his assistant arranges and rearranges a mute figure standing on a plinth. The director (Philip Russell) is demanding, anti-human, self-importantly dense; the assistant is neither curious nor compassionate, but carefully neutral. "I make a note," she keeps repeating. It's the assistant who suggests the mute figure be gagged. But there's a softer dimension to the assistant's role because of the physical grace and slender, sensitive hands of Gwen Terry, who plays it.

Of the evening's four pieces, this is the one that remains most vivid in my mind; I find myself lingering on its stripped-down cleanness and the ideas it evokes. Among other things, Catastrophe is about the creation of a work of art, the director a manifestation of Beckett himself: The playwright was known for his dictatorial approach. He insisted that every second of every pause he indicated be honored, and he was known to mercilessly prohibit productions of his plays when he disliked a director's approach. Catastrophe also mimics Beckett's artistic process, the way his writing became sparser and more gnomic over the years, just as the Protagonist -- the man-statue -- becomes less human and more objectified with every change and manipulation, until his face is hidden and his soon-to-be whitened body suggests a skeleton.

There are political and psychological connotations, too. This play, Beckett's last, was dedicated to Czech president (at least until February) Vaclav Havel. In 1982, when Catastrophe was written, Havel was a dissident playwright, persecuted for his resistance to the communist government. So it's no accident that the Protagonist resembles a concentration-camp survivor or a man awaiting execution. Or perhaps the victim in Kafka's devastating story "The Punishment Machine." In this silent and difficult role, Darrin Ray is intensely expressive.

There was a period when I worshiped Beckett, though I'm never sure, looking back, whether my feelings were a genuine response to his work or the half-baked effusions of a typical Lit major ("I don't understand this, so it must be great"). As the years rolled by, I grew impatient with him. I'd seen a lot of Godots, and the piece had lost its early shock value. Besides, Beckett had begun to create these odd little fingernail parings of plays that featured a creaking rocking chair, light slanting on a bare stage, the mutterings of old cracked voices. Was he really a genius, I wondered, or were we all colluding in the pretense that he was? Viewing Catastrophe, I remembered exactly why I'd venerated this craggy, intimidating artist. There's music in his silences, profound meaning in those apparently flat and repetitive phrases. I saw an astonishing power in the Protagonist's powerlessness and wondered if it expressed something Beckett felt about his own rapidly approaching, ineluctable and eternal silence. I was moved when the Protagonist raised his head at the end of the play. And I could see why every second of every pause had to be preserved.

In contrast with the gaunt old master, the Sam Shepard who wrote Red Cross was a garrulous, hopped-up kid, playing ecstatically with words. The play begins with a couple in a rural motel room. The woman, fighting an incipient headache, works her way through an extended fantasy about being on a ski run. She imagines fir trees, the scent of cocoa from nearby cottages. And then, she says, her head will explode and roll down the slope, gathering snow. This speech is a prime example of Shepard's free-associative word spinning; you can tell he was intoxicated by his own rhythms and the seductive absurdities of the imagery. The woman goes out. Left alone, the man, Jim, contemplates the colony of crabs which has, apparently, been breeding merrily on his body for a decade. The maid comes in to make up the room. It's Darrin Ray again, in drag. He does a terrific job, but I'm not sure I agree with this piece of casting. I have faint memories of seeing Red Cross decades ago, and it seems to me that part of the play's zest stems from the maid's stolid normalcy before she's seduced -- and ultimately almost killed -- by Jim's imaginings. Red Cross isn't logical or linear. It's about confounding expectation and improvising text the way a jazz musician improvises music. It's also about the way words create reality. Philip Russell is a convincing Jim; Gwen Terry could be a little more grounded as the woman.

The second part of the evening begins with Breath, another late Beckett piece (though much earlier than Catastrophe). It's very brief, consisting only of light and sound, and it needs a cleaner and more precise staging than this theater's tech system can provide.

Cowboys #2, the final Shepard play, actually struck me as a rather conventional piece of work. It's about a pair of homeless men (clearly Beckett's archetypal tramps were in Shepard's mind when he wrote it) who try on various roles and personae to pass the time and forget the rain, cold and menacing dark clouds that surround them. They talk about birds -- vultures, dying chickens -- and about body smells and toe jam. One of them has a rhapsodic aria about breakfast. Eventually, like the characters in Red Cross, Stu and Chet find their fantasies overwhelming them.

Alexander Reshetniak directed Catastrophe with beautiful control. Todd Trudgeon's take on Red Cross and Cowboys #2 occasionally seemed a little rushed and frantic. And when a woman walks onto the stage to adjust the set -- since it's done while the audience watches -- she might want to do it with calm and authority rather than haste. A set change can enhance the experience of viewing theater rather than detract from it. And I do wish the program had told us about the Havel dedication.

But in an odd way, the omissions and raw edges, the sense of improvisation and even the cold of the Buntport auditorium become essential elements in a very intriguing evening of theater.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman