Samuel Beckett is one playwright you don't fuck around with. He writes elliptically and elegantly and with a full understanding you can make his out-of-the-ordinary playlets acceptable to any discerning audience. Which is exactly what director Ron Sossi has done for and with his KOAN company of accomplished actors, in this astonishing production of, "Beckett5".
Beckett (1906-1983), an Irishman who flourished in France, lets his off-kilter characters in non-traditional settings experience in their reality what most of us would encounter only in our dreams, with finessed results.
The four gloriously short plays that make up the first act ("Act Without Words II," "Come and Go," "Catastrophe," and "Footfalls") are wondrous to behold. All of these short plays are relatively unknown, in contrast to the better known "Krapp's Last Tape" seen in the latter half of the evening.
In "Act Without Words II," (1960) we find a tall figure in black with a huge spear and two white duffel bags on stage, which, one after the other, unfold to expose an old man who prays silently not to be eaten. He dresses in his tuxedo, which he then takes off and climbs back into his bag. The other bag unfolds to show us a woman who puts on the same clothes as the fellow did, mouthing prayers we do not (need not) hear, and quietly reclaims her resting space in the bag. All is done mechanically with no discernible dialogue.
"Come and Go" opens with three similar figures of middle age, Flo, Vi, and Ru, dressed similarly in muted yet stirring colors, hats hiding their eyes, sitting quietly on a narrow bench surrounded by nightfall. They are childhood friends who once attended a private school together and sitting side by side in this manner is something they used to do in the playground back then. One by one, they gossip unheard (by us) stories into each other's ears, then slide back onto the bench. It's charming as directed and acted.
"Catastrophe" (1982) is dedicated to the late President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, when he was a prisoner of the corrupt Communist government. It's about a stage/museum director and his assistant who prepare an older man to be a propagandistic symbol of their regime, taking him dressed in dark clothes and repositioning him in white, apparently to deflect their misdeeds.
"Footfalls" (1975) dissects the relationship between an elderly mother we never see and her nervous, constantly walking grown daughter. The mother is never seen and may be dead in fact, a memory, perhaps, in her daughter's mind. It's moody and sad.
The second act is "Krapp's "Last Tape" (1958), in which Krapp is observing his 69th birthday while he hauls out his old tape recorder, threading in a 30-year-old tape from when he was 39. He then records a new tape, commenting on his life this past year, none of which is pleasant. Somewhat arrogant, he is clearly a failing figure, not sure what to make of his last year in his 60s or, indeed, of any future he might have.
Well-performed by Norbert Weisser, his cranky old man isn't interested in indulging himself in self-pity, but he doesn't have much insight into himself, either.
Weisser appears in "Catastrophe," also. The other actors, Alan Abelew, Diane Cignoni, Sheelagh Cullen, and Beth Hogan, all members of the KOAN Unit, are all terrific older folk who have learned necessary lessons in what makes for quality acting. They make much of Beckett's often-obtuse words and actions, allowing for full understanding of the material. Obviously, director Sossi knew what he was doing here.
A simple unit set by Mark Guirguis, lit impeccably by Chu-Hsuan Chang, and using Audrey Eisner's costumes, all delightfully support the vision of the evening.
This is quality theater and funny to boot. It's a class company, soon to be undone by Actors Equity Association's bone-headed notion of how to destroy theater, instead of promoting it. See them while you can.
"Beckett5" plays through March 5 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles 90025. For tickets or information, call 310-477-2055 x2 or visit www.odysseytheatre.com/beckett.php