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Perhaps no playwright is a greater bard of silence than Samuel Beckett. Speech is a way to pass the time from cradle to grave, but we eventually run out of things to say. To insert incidental music into his exquisitely protracted pauses would be tantamount to slathering kobe beef with Easy Cheese—to add would be to subtract. But musicians still deserve a crack at old man Krapp, and director Joy Zinoman has found an elegant solution. In Sounding Beckett, she pairs three of his short works with musical responses penned by contemporary composers and performed by the excellent Cygnus Ensemble.
The three theatrical slivers all date from the playwright’s ghost period—sparse, late-career works that aren’t so much populated by characters as by phantoms. In Footfalls (1975), a bedraggled woman (Holly Twyford) paces back and forth, arguing with her disembodied mother (a prerecorded Kathleen Chalfant), dragging her feet so that the sound of her steps becomes almost percussive. In the lovely Ohio Impromptu (1980), two identically dressed old men sit at a wooden table, one (Ted van Griethuysen) reading melancholy prose and the other (Philip Goodwin) offering knocks on the tabletop and thousand-yard stares.
The final piece, 1982’s Catastrophe, feels out of place. Fast and impersonal, this heavy-handed allegory for both political and directorial oppression seems to belong to a different camp entirely. With a wealth of Beckett morsels to choose from in this period, it’s strange that Zinoman picked this one rather than, say, the hypnotic one-woman Rockaby (1980).
The ensemble members all give strong performances, as does the six-member Cygnus Ensemble on compositions that are as difficult and as strangely beautiful as Beckett’s dialogue. Laura Schwendinger’s piece for Footfalls is particularly effective, featuring stretches in which the musicians play their instruments so lightly, it could just be the autumn wind blowing through their strings. Beckett’s works demand postviewing brooding, and these haunting soundscapes offer a an appropriately moody place to drift.—Jenna Scherer