The final stage direction in Samuel Beckett's “Play” is “repeat.” The Acme Corporation, one of Baltimore's experimental theater companies, is taking that instruction very seriously.
Last Friday, the one-act, three-character, roughly one-hour work was performed on a kind of continual loop from noon until midnight in a high-ceilinged, balconied hall at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. But that's just a warm-up. This week, the production's length will double, running continually from one noon to the next.
“I'm interested in duration and how things progress, change or fall apart over a long time,” said “Play” director Stephen Nunns. “I have no idea what's going to happen, which I'm really excited about.”
Nunns, director of the MFA Program in Theatre Arts at Towson University, will have a great vantage point to observe how the cast makes it through the marathon. He's running the lighting board, a hefty assignment in “Play,” where spot lights have a pivotal role in the action.
The 1963 “Play” centers on a man, his wife and his lover. The three address, from their distinct perspectives, details and ramifications of an adulterous affair. Some analysts see the light that shines on them, triggering their speech, as a kind of divine judge.
Any number of interpretations of the text is possible, just as the word “repeat” can be taken in various ways.
“What Beckett really means is repeat two and a half times, then fade out,” Nunns said. “I think his idea is that these people might be dead and could be in a purgatory, where they have to relive things over and over. I'm going for a literal interpretation.”
Acme's staging of “Play” will include several variations during the repeats — changing the location of the performers in the hall, for example. This should help keep things fresh, but those variations bring a certain risk.
“It's the exact same text each time, just done differently,” said actress Naomi Kline, who portrays the mistress in “Play.” “So you have to be very careful not to get tripped up.”
The actors — Sophie Hinderberger and Single Carrot Theatre member Nathan A. Cooper round out the cast — will have a lot to be careful about. As Sen. Rand Paul's recent filibuster in the Senate illustrated, there are limits to how long anyone can keep talking, let alone acting in a play.
“We have made food part of the show, so the actors can have it whenever they want,” said set designer Lola B. Pierson. “And each actor has three minutes off each hour to use the bathroom.”
Unusual productions are par for the course at the Acme Corporation. One of last season's shows was a zombie version of Chekhov's “Three Sisters.” And another Nunns-directed Beckett work, “Not I,” involved putting an actress' face underwater, where a video camera captured her expressions.
“We do pretty extreme work,” Pierson said with a laugh.
In preparing for the extremes of “Play,” Kline is drawing on a previous, non-theatrical experience.
“I have run a half-marathon,” the actress said, “so I know how you can't stop, how you feel the pain of it and the exhaustion, but you keep getting past it. I’ve been storing up on sleep.”
Should any theater-goers care to try their own endurance feat of attendance, the Acme gang is ready. A prize (“not some crappy T-shirt”) is being promised to the audience member who stays the longest.
“I don't really expect anyone to stay for the entire thing,” Nunns said. “We're stamping people's hands so they can come back at different times, just to see if we're really doing it.”
There is no talk of cheating, though, even if attendance dissipates in the wee small hours.
“We're going to be doing it anyway,” Kline said. “If you want to share it with us, please do.”