The Impossible Industrial Action theater company has taken an odd, environmental approach to the five short Samuel Beckett plays it has produced at the Theatre Project under the joint title "BeckettLand."
The oddities begin as soon as you enter the building and pass through a fringed Mylar curtain. Inside, the staircase is draped with gauzy fabric, hung like tenting. The ticket price includes a box of popcorn, and when you walk into the theater itself, you hear eerie carnival music.
Beckett as a sideshow? That's IIA's idea, and it's odder than it is effective. Granted, some of Beckett's absurdist elements may seem freakish, but I've always felt he was striving to make a universal statement -- not to set his characters apart as freaks from whom theatergoers can easily distance themselves.
It's also a good bet the late playwright would not have been pleased about stringing his scripts together as sideshow acts. Beckett was a stickler about having his stage directions followed to the letter, and his estate has proved equally vigilant. Less than two weeks ago, a staged reading of his first, previously unperformed, full-length script, was moved from a theater to a private apartment after his estate raised objections.
It is possible, however, to examine IIA's treatment of these five scripts -- two of which are directed by Paul D. Wright and the rest by Tony Tsendeas -- apart from the carnival context. (That's also the clearest proof that the context is dispensable). Whatever your opinion of this icon of 20th century theater -- and on the night I attended several theatergoers expressed theirs by walking out -- Beckett wrote plays whose repetitiveness and timing make them tricky to perform.
Yet for the most part, IIA proves up to the task.
The evening begins with "What Where," a piece about the last five people on earth, though only four (Mark Harp, Donna Sherman, Thomas E. Cole and Robin J. Hogle) appear on stage. Those four look strikingly alike, in long gray wigs and outfits that resemble prison garb. One by one they are led off and tortured to death until only Harp remains; and he, at the bidding of a disembodied voice, "switches off."
In "Ohio Impromptu," Robb Bauer and Cole, also made up like geriatric twins, sit nearly motionless at a table while Bauer reads to Cole. At the conclusion, unlike the rest of "BeckettLand," which seems to stress isolation, the two face each other, though without expression.
The most accessible and amusing work is "Act Without Words II," which features Cole and Bauer concealed in huge laundry sacks.
A stick prods Cole, who climbs out of his bag, dresses and performs several other mundane activities, each with considerable effort and accompanying groans. He then returns to his sack, and the stick prods Bauer, who engages in similar activities, although his cheerful, self-satisfied demeanor is the opposite of Cole's. The two never meet, and their attitudes suggest that, despite nearly identical routines, they have little in common.
"Footfalls" is the most challenging play -- for the audience and the performer. An examination of tedium, it conveys this all too well as Sherman paces back and forth, talking to the voice of her aged mother, until, in the end, the roles seem to reverse.
The final piece is the wordless, actor-less, 15-second "Breath." For some reason, director Tsendeas has replaced the script's faint cry with a shriek. He may have been intending to reinforce the funhouse theme, but this histrionic interpretation, like the overall context, is not the evening's most compelling theme.
Instead, what these plays have in common is a view of life in which connections are, if not impossible, at least strained, and hope is of less consequence than endurance. That's pure Beckett, and it comes through despite the carnival trappings.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 23
Call: (410) 752-8558