‘The Samuel Beckett Experience’ cuts deeper than absurdity

By Scott Powell; Reprinted with permission from the Rocky Mountain Collegian

It’s easy to be intimidated by Samuel Beckett. He’s the kind of playwright who, to the general public, has largely devolved into nothing more than a sneering inside joke among elitist members of the theater world — the kind of playwright often name-dropped at cocktail parties by stuffed-shirted stage snobs for the sake of making themselves look more fancy and cosmopolitan than they are.

It takes someone with a true appreciation and genuine respect for the Irish playwright’s work to recognize its simplicity and its universality and to convey that simplicity onstage in such a way that audiences don’t feel the overwhelming pressure to over-intellectualize the thing and can simply experience Beckett the way Beckett was meant to be experienced.

The Colorado State University theatre department’s most recent production, “Four Times/Times Four: The Samuel Beckett Experience,” does precisely this — brilliantly capturing the dark, reflective tone and pace of some of Beckett’s lesser-known short plays, offering a rare and expertly crafted insight into one of history’s finest and most innovative dramatists.

The production is just the latest offering from CSU’s esteemed Center for Studies in Beckett and Performance, an academic organization dedicated to preserving an understanding and appreciation for Beckett’s work.

“I got turned on to Samuel Beckett as a student...being made to read ‘Waiting for Godot,’ which woke me up to what this writer was all about, and I got more and more drawn in,” said Eric Prince, the director of “The Beckett Experience” and founder of CSU’s Center for Studies in Beckett and Performance. “We’ve always made it a policy to do a Beckett production whenever we can,...and when we haven’t been able to do a production, I’ve been publishing papers and attending conferences internationally, pursuing my own creative research in this field.”

But “The Beckett Experience” is not just another Beckett production for Prince. With plans to retire after this school year, the showcase is also the professor’s personal swan song to the center he established and the community he has built over his twenty years working for the University.

And what a swan song it is.

The play is a conversation slowed down to one-quarter speed, exposing just how little our constant talking actually teaches or fulfills us.”

The show opens with the haunting “Come and Go,” which depicts a slow, ghostly conversation between three women about … well, we don’t know exactly what.

The deadpan stares of the women, their monotonous recital of each sparse line of dialogue, the mechanical way in which they enter and exit the stage and their eerily uniform joining of hands at the show’s end, as they comment on the feel of each other’s “rrrriiiiings,” may not give the audience much story, but it perfectly encapsulates the sense of dread and the terrifying lifelessness of life that Beckett sought to highlight in his work. The play is a conversation slowed down to one-quarter speed, exposing just how little our constant talking actually teaches or fulfills us.

The unnerving performances given by actresses Maggie Albanese, Nicole Gardner and Alexandra Ruth cannot be ignored for the power they imbue into this piece. The three move together like clockwork, never once batting so much as an eye or twitching a cheek or shifting their fogged, unidirectional gazes. The trio has so thoroughly imbued themselves into their respective characters — or, rather, into the droning machine their respective characters have sacrificed themselves to — that they have become inseparable from it.

In conventional theater, it’s this kind of freedom that one has to turn their role into something wholly their own that brings the actors to life and brings the show to life. To make such dehumanized, impersonalized characters as these so gripping, the way these three women do, is no easy task. It requires a willingness to sacrifice one’s self and one’s own personal interpretation of a role wholly to the purpose that role serves in the overarching production — a willingness only the most disciplined of performers possess.

Maggie Albanese and Alexandra Ruth perform “Come and Go” during a dress rehearsal for The Beckett Experience on Dec. 2. Director Eric Prince said that these pieces are rarely performed and working on them has been terrific.

Following “Come and Go” is the equally dread-inducing, more fatalistic “Rockaby,” which sees an old woman, spent and weary from her long life, rocking herself, quite literally, to death while her tortuous, repetitive musings play on repeat in the background. It’s yet another deceptively simple role that can only be pulled off by a performer with complete command over their craft.

She is not just another worthless lump on the Earth’s surface waiting around to die. She is a person who is full of life and purpose and meaning but who has suppressed that meaning so much that she no longer recognizes it in herself and cannot think of how to properly act on it.”

A character who says so little and does so little can be easy for actors to play as a mere prop — just another thing in the scene, rather than a character who has feelings and emotions and a perspective on what they are doing — even if what they are doing is simply rocking back and forth for the entire show.

This is what makes visiting actress Wendy Ishii’s performance so refreshing. It manages to convey this woman’s very real, very deep psychological mindset despite the minimal action she takes. Ishii doesn’t simply accept the sparseness of the character outlined in the script because she recognizes that this is not Beckett’s purpose for her. She is not just another worthless lump on the Earth’s surface waiting around to die. She is a person who is full of life and purpose and meaning but who has suppressed that meaning so much that she no longer recognizes it in herself and cannot think of how to properly act on it.

This internal world is one that is difficult to capture in a play like “Rockaby” because the absence of action makes it so that it cannot be faked. There is nothing tangible that the actor can turn to or rely on — no action or words — to convey this deep-seated dread to the audience. Thus, it can only be translated through the actor’s subtle mannerisms and expressions.

Wendy Ishii performs “Rockaby” during a dress rehearsal for The Beckett Experience on Dec. 2.

Imbuing one’s self into a character’s inner world this way is a taxing feat as is, and it is infinitely more so when that inner world is as dark and as deeply terrifying as that of an old woman on the verge of confronting the most emotionally-charged experience of a person’s life — their death. Yet Ishii is in that character and in that world from the very start of the play to the very end — radiating this woman’s terror through her rigid posture, her petrified gaze, the slight, tense downward tilt of her wrinkly chin and every single other minuscule movement she makes onstage.

After “Rockaby” comes a series of four poems by Beckett, performed by Prince himself. While these may seem like a bit of a diversion from the production’s focus on Beckett’s dramatic pieces, the sequence fits into the show seamlessly, highlighting the intersectional nature of the writer’s work. It illustrates that to experience Beckett is to experience Beckett’s words, his language and the imagery it evokes. They are what Beckett used to define the rhythm and the tone of his work, and the inclusion of the poems helps to reel the audience back into that.

This isn’t to say that Prince’s delivery of the poems is disposable. Indeed, quite the opposite. What Beckett’s work does is highlight the life-giving power of words when used correctly and intentionally. He does not simply throw words around as a means of highlighting their absurdity the way some playwrights do, but rather to highlight their sanctity.

Once again, this is something that many recitals of Beckett’s work fail to capture. They present his work as a blanket revolt against any and all meaning and purpose in life — including any meaning we imbue into words. But this is missing the point. Beckett wasn’t out to expose the fraudulence of language, but to highlight its intrinsic connection to life and to purpose and the existential threat we face when we do not recognize this connection.

Prince’s performance captures this perfectly. With each and every word of the poem being shot at the audience like a blow dart, his delivery embodies the deep passion that the words in Beckett’s plays are meant to bring out. It reminds the audience that, as nihilistic as Beckett’s work may appear to be on the surface, the underlying purpose is to give life to his audience, not to drain it. Prince’s impassioned recitation of this poem conveys this brilliantly and brings to light the liveliness that underlies Beckett’s externally bleak, monotone style.

If the words in Prince’s poem were darts, the show’s final installment, a play cheekily titled “Play,” is a full-on howitzer. It’s a jarring, nonstop bombardment of words fired straight into the audience for 30 minutes, hurried along by a cruel, unceasing, unforgiving spotlight that bounces between three urn-ridden corpses — a man, his wife and his mistress (played by students Ryan Volkert, Taylor Baptiste and Abigail Porter, respectively) — as they try to defend their lives of sin and deceit.

Unlike the show’s previous three installments, “Play” does not use language as a key to the human psyche, but rather serves as a cautionary tale for the utter madness and futility that our misuse of words leads to. It is not a slow, contemplative dissection of the impact words have on us, but a deluge of monotone ramblings that illustrate the self-made hell that ensues when we use words as a means of justifying our wrongs rather than communicating our truth. In lieu of divine intervention, this is divine interrogation: three hopeless pleas for salvation in the face of a burning, spotlighted almighty.

“My previous experience acting has been reacting, but for (Beckett) there’s been … almost nothing to react to except this light that keeps hitting us,” said Abigail Porter, who plays woman one in the piece. “It’s hard … (because) I have my cast members, but we’re very separate. We have our own stories that we’re telling.”

In lieu of divine intervention, this is divine interrogation. Three hopeless pleas for salvation in the face of a burning, spotlighted almighty.”

As with the show’s previous installments, Porter, Volkert and Baptiste’s performances exquisitely toe the line between their characters’ function as a part of the piece’s overarching expressionistic tone and the more personal, albeit repressed, psychological forces that distinguish their individual characters from one another.

It’s easy for presentations of Beckett to descend into nothing but a proclamation of the complete and utter hopelessness of our lives and our existence because, on the surface, this is all his work seems to be saying — that you’re going to die one day, and there’s nothing you can do about that, and isn’t it a shame that you have to live your whole life knowing it?

But this interpretation does not fully recognize or appreciate the actual purpose that Beckett’s work serves: to tell the intangible truth that he weaves into it — truth that gives us hope despite our awareness of the terrible fate that awaits us all.

What Prince and the cast and crew of “The Beckett Experience” have done so exquisitely here is recognize and convey where that hopefulness shines through — in the fact that we, as people, can look death straight in the eye, that we can watch a woman rock herself to death in a rocking chair for 15 minutes, and choose to keep living. And that’s incredible.

They recognize that there’s something exhilarating about that, something that makes you want to peel back the layers and give words to the emotions and feelings that have cemented that look of petrified terror onto the old woman’s face in “Rockaby” or that propel the dart-like words in Prince’s recital of “Quatré Poémes” and have sought to capture this exhilaration rather than the surface-level gloominess of each piece in the show.

“The characters are so abstract because there is supposed to be room for people to see themselves,” said Taylor Baptiste, who plays the part of woman two in “Play.”

Beckett’s work is supposed to be relational. It isn’t a reminder that we are going to die; it’s a reminder of our incredible capability, as humans, to be able to face death, understand death and continue living in spite of it.

But to convey that purpose requires a remarkable depth of understanding of Beckett’s work, an understanding of one’s own feelings and a sincere dedication to one’s craft, all of which are put on exceptional display in “The Beckett Experience.”