While exclamations points have a long and illustrious history in musical theatre – from Oklahoma! to Oliver! to Mamma Mia! – you don’t really expect them to show up in the theatre of the absurd. If you had to select a punctuation mark for a Samuel Beckett show, certainly, an ellipsis would be more fitting.
But here we have Beckett: Feck It!, an unfortunately named, but entirely engrossing evening of theatre and song by contemporary opera company Queen of Puddings, presented by Canadian Stage.
Director Jennifer Tarver is in charge of the drama and gets to cross the following four short plays off her Beckett list: Act Without Words II; Come and Go; Play; and Ohio Impromptu. Her four-person cast for these miserablist miniatures is evenly split between accomplished performers from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Tom Rooney and Laura Condlln) and young actors fresh out of Ryerson Theatre School (Michal Grzejszczak and Sofia Tomic).
Meanwhile, acting as sound sommeliers, musical directors Dáirine Ní Mheardhra and John Hess have paired these playlets with Irish contemporary compositions performed by trumpeter Michael Fedyshyn and soprano Shannon Mercer.
Beckett, the Waiting for Godot wordsmith who was also a lover of classical music and accomplished amateur pianist, is often described as a playwright with strong musical sensibilities – and these juxtapositions give us a chance to discern that quality for ourselves.
Play is the most celebrated of the Beckett works featured here, and the most obviously musical. In it, the disembodied heads of a man, his wife and his mistress tell their sides of the story about an affair whenever a spotlight is shone on them.
With its repeats, tempo changes and chorus, Play is performed like a musical score with the light acting as conductor. (If it had a dynamic marking, it would read diminuendo al niente – or fading towards nothingness.) Rooney and Condlln, as the husband and wife, are virtuosic in their handling of Beckett’s fragmented text; Tomic keeps up, but is less precise in her diction and more cartoonish in her characterization.
Risking the wrath of the notoriously controlling Beckett estate, Tarver makes a couple of minor changes. First, Play’s heads pop out of the ground of Teresa Przybylski’s one-size-fits-all set, instead of urns as written.
More problematically, she and her lighting designer, Kimberly Purtell, do precisely what Beckett stated mustn’t be done with the piece, illuminating the three characters with separate lights shining down from the heavens, instead of a single, roving spotlight below.
The ultimate effect of this simplified lighting (particularly the way it bleeds and fades, rather than snaps) is to mechanize the play and remove what is really its central character – the “hellish halflight” that acts as a cruel interrogator to Play’s tragicomic comic trio.
More faithfully executed is Act without Words II, in which two men in sacks are prodded by an impossibly long pole that rolls in from the wings.
Grzejszczak is the petulant teenager of the pair; he leaves his sack reluctantly, says his prayers, dresses, eats a carrot, undresses, and re-enters his sack, punctuating each action with disgust. Rooney performs a similar routine, but with more relish; indeed, he comes across as Bugs Bunny on speed. Both men’s approaches to life are revealed as essentially ludicrous in Beckett’s simple, Sisyphean metaphor.
Come and Go involves a trio of women gossiping, which means singer Mercer steps in here to do a little unsung acting. It’s a forgettable Beckettian B-Side as far as I’m concerned, though again quite musical in its construction. (Listen to Beckett’s pauses – they’re not dramatic, like most playwrights’, but more like rests between notes.)
Finally, there’s Ohio Impromptu, in which two men in long black coats and wide-brimmed hats sit at a table, one reading a mysterious book to the other. With the younger Grzejszczak as the reader and the older Rooney as the listener, Tarver’s production comes across as a kind of metaphysical rehash of Krapp’s Last Tape (which she memorably directed starring Brian Dennehy).
It seems a missed opportunity that Queen of Puddings did not select some of the Beckett shorts that specifically integrate Beethoven or Schubert. Instead, the main musical component is Drei Gesänge, three minimalist songs by Irish contemporary classic composer Andrew Hamilton set to German poetry.
Like Play – which was originally written in German by the multilingual Beckett – Drei Gesänge features many lines cut off abruptly or interrupted by sudden, unsettling interjections. In one of the movements, Mercer comes across as an opera singer who has developed Tourette’s. (Compare to Rooney’s hiccup-prone character in Play.) It’s a fantastically dramatic piece delivered with gusto by Mercer; it certainly makes Come and Go – the short it sandwiches – seem like weak tea.
The other musical selections are a melancholy bugle call called Trumpeter by Irish composer called Gerald Barry and a 16th-century love song, Eleanór a Rún. The latter, sung in Irish Gaelic, features the refrain: “I would love to drive the calves with you, Eleanor my sweetheart.” An oddly sentimental conclusion to an evening of Beckett, but, whatever, feck it!
Beckett: Feck It!
- Written by Samuel Beckett
- Directed by Jennifer Tarver
- Starring Tom Rooney, Laura Condlln
- A Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company production
- At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto