Samuel Beckett frequently observed that the moment we are born we start to die. Human existence, in Beckett's view, amounts to finding ways to pass the time while proceeding from the cradle to the grave.
It's not exactly a cheerful philosophy, but it's not totally despairing, either. The characters in his novels and plays voice their complaints with such vigor that we know they are very much alive in a world they cannot control or even understand. When their bodies wither away and they are reduced, in theatrical terms, to spotlighted talking lips, their voices keep going. As Beckett would put it: they can't go on, but they go on.
That sense of the injured psyche insisting on speaking its mind comes through in the six Beckett one-act plays being staged by Mongrel Theatre in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University. Giving the evening the cheeky title of "Sam's Shorts," The Mongrel company is performing "A Piece of Monologue," "Rough for Theater" I and II, "Krapp's Last Tape," "No Matter" and "Catastrophe."
If you're looking for conventionally crafted little plays with clearly defined characters and morals, look elsewhere, because these are deliberately frustrating theatrical exercises. Some of the characters are referred to by alphabetical designations ("A," "B" and "C" in "Rough for Theater II") and one character is no more than a "Mouth" (in "No Matter"). They talk away on nearly bare sets on which the props amount to the occasional table or lamp. In terms of plot, they don't do much besides talk.
But what wonderfully evocative talk! Snippets of biography come through as their present complaints mingle with recollections of earlier days. Even at their most nonsensical, there's a lot of sense in what they say. Eschewing easy sentimentality, Beckett arrives at honest sentiment as these characters in various ways review their lives.
The high point of the evening is the monologue by Binnie Ritchie-Holum as Krapp in "Krapp's Last Tape." Basically a situation in which a character seated at a desk listens to taped recollections, this short play is a brilliant example of how Beckett's spare imagery manages to evoke a remarkably pungent world of experience.
Although the late playwright occasionally surfaced from his reclusive life in Paris to ensure that productions of his plays adhered to his strictly defined stage directions, Mongrel has taken a major liberty in "Krapp's Last Tape." Beckett specifies that Krapp be an old man; Mongrel has cast a middle-age woman in the part. The gender switch may alarm Beckett purists, but the linguistic tapestry works just as well.
More problematic is the tampering with a bit of comic stage business. Beckett's stage directions in the opening section call for Krapp to take out a banana, playfully walk about with it, and nearly slip on the peel. It's the sort of vaudeville turn one finds in most of Beckett's plays, and it's what makes them funny as well as existentially anxious.
Instead, Ms. Ritchie-Holum's Krapp bites into an apple as if savoring a Proustian madeleine. It's effective, but at the expense of the comedy Beckett found in our grim universe.
The other short plays in this production, each directed by a different person, share in common a fierce commitment to language and actors who truly know their lines. If one can quibble with some of the particulars -- the spotlight on Dana Whipkey's 'Mouth" in "No Matter" needs to be more tightly focused, for instance -- the evening as a whole is a worthwhile way to pass the time.
What: One-act plays by Samuel Beckett
Where: Merrick Barn, Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 7
Tickets: $8; $6 for seniors and students
Call: (410) 323-0899