Even if you know the name Samuel Beckett, chances are good that you know him the wrong way.
Around here, the famous 20th century Irish playwright is mostly encountered in the library, or in the classroom, through the printed texts of his plays. But according to Bernadette Sweeney, director of two plays by Beckett that open at the Crystal Theatre next week, that’s precisely the wrong way to get to know the work of the Nobel Prize-winning pioneer of so-called Absurdist theatre.
“It’s so crucial to see the plays performed live in order to really ‘get’ them,” said Sweeney. “On the page, you don’t get that sense of what these things are like three dimensionally and what it’s like when things are happening simultaneously, as they often are. (Beckett) was interested in all that theater has to offer – the physicality and stagecraft and lighting – and very little of that is properly conveyed when you simply read his texts.”
Take, for example, the overarching flow of his short play, “Play.” The text is certainly evocative and oddly entertaining enough, as the three unnamed characters rehash their messy love triangle. Perhaps you can even imagine how it looks – with the three characters sitting in urns, only their heads visible for the entire duration of the drama.
Then you get to the last page, and if you aren’t reading carefully, you might miss the italicized and parenthetical stage direction: “repeat play.”
Do you go back and read it? Do you change how you read it on second reading?
And what about all those sections where all three characters are supposed to speak at the same time? How, exactly, do you read that?
“A lot of the circumstances of ‘Play’ are quite basic and not profound, really,” said Sweeney. “But with the use of light, repetition, with how he places the physical actor on stage, he really brings us as audience members into a real association with the simplicity of these images in a really unrelenting way.”
“These characters in ‘Play,’ they’re caught,” continued Sweeney. “They’re trapped. They’re stuck in the cycle of memory. … They’re addressing a spotlight, almost like they’re being interrogated until they give the right answer. But they don’t know what the right answer is.”
Then there’s the case of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” The script is all of five pages long. The cast consists of one actor.
The play lasts almost an hour.
“Beckett stages time, and it’s especially hard to get a sense of that off the page,” said Sweeney. “What you have is Krapp – the onstage, live Krapp – at 69 years old, listening to a recording of himself at 39 years old, and his 39-year-old self is remembering a tape he had just listened to from 10 years previously. He’s caught in remembering. So in performance you really best capture the duality of that.”
In those ways, Beckett’s work is right up the alley of Sweeney, a visiting professor in the University of Montana’s Irish Studies program. Her 2008 book, “Performing the Body in Irish Theatre,” explores the important extra-textual traditions in Irish theatre.
“Krapp’s Last Tape” would also fit right in line with the talents of its sole actor, Michael Murphy, an experienced actor and director who now teaches in UM’s Media Arts department. Together with fellow Media Arts professor Dale Sherrard, Murphy put together the technical aspects of the production.
Meantime, the cast of “Play” consists of mainstay actors from Montana Actors’ Theatre, including artistic director Grant Olson, Sarina Hart, Michelle Edwards and Deborah Voss.
“It’s really interdisciplinary and brings a lot of forces together,” said Sweeney. “It’s a great collection of people.”