Hellish Half-Light: Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett
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Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. at Angel Island. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Jennifer Markowitz. With Molly Fisher, Rudy Galvan, Lauren Guglielmello, Adam Soule, Stephen Walker, Kathrynne Wolf. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
In 20th-century avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett's world, just about everything is dusty and broken, and the purpose of life—an oxymoron around these parts—is itself a deadpan joke. In fact, if you take a close look, no matter how bleak the subject matter, deep deep down, there's a wicked sense of humor inherent in his existential plays, and it accompanies the wicked sense he had toward just about everything.
Some of that is on display in Jennifer Markowitz's admirable staging of six of the Irish author's short plays for Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., including Rough for Theatre I & II, Come & Go, and What Where, performed in the round on a dilapidated, rubbish strewn set by six actors who weave in and out of each short.
They include Stephen Walker, a booming-voiced actor who's a natural fit for the layered, heightened comedy the works call for and a highlight of the collection. In Rough for Theatre II, Walker sits opposite Adam Soule as a pair of bureaucrats scouring over a soon-to-be suicide victim's life files (a rare find in Beckett's universe; no one seems to look after anyone) for any bit of hope. Jaded and dismissive, the younger counterpart arrogantly rattles off the reasons why allowing the jumper to defenestrate is really just calling it even. In response, there's anguish and hope in Walker's face, suggesting a more aged wisdom about the value of life—it's curiously optimistic, even if the play's outcome isn't. Similarly, in Catastrophe, Walker has an acerbic, bitingly funny manner about himself as a demanding director manipulating a speechless tramp (Rudy Galvan) with the help of a busybody assistant played by Molly Fisher.
It would be easy to mistake another rarely performed work, What Where, for something by Harold Pinter. In a totalitarian society, Bam (Kathrynne Wolf) follows her voice's (Lauren Guglielmello) instructions to interrogate and torture her own followers in a cannibalistic bout of paranoia and control. For these plays, the words and the performances speak for themselves, but Markowitz's decision to stage everything in the round is an odd one—putting audience members so visibly in the action more often distracts from the happenings onstage instead of adding to them.
In fact, though honest and effective, it feels like there's some missed opportunity to push these rare works a bit further. Hans Fleischmann's hypnotic Glass Menagerie, a 2012 hit, worked so well in part because of its surreal and psychological staging. If there's any company with a taste for the hellish in Chicago, it's Mary-Arrchie. A bit more of that hell would do here quite nicely.