Dallas — Kitchen Dog Theater takes its name from the tramp’s singsong about a kitchen dog stealing a crust of bread in Samuel Beckett’s modernist masterpiece Waiting for Godot, his powerfully influential 1953 tragicomedy fired by the human will to survive despite the despair of loss and exile.
This week the company opened its 26th season celebrating their namesake with A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett’s Bequest, featuring two rarely seen short works by Beckett and four fascinating short pieces by playwrights influenced by the minimalist Nobel Laureate, including a fiercely comic world premiere.
The Beckett tribute, tightly directed by Tim Johnson and performed with luminous tautness by the first-rate four-member cast, is staged at Trinity River Arts Center, the company’s temporary home for the season. The lobby is covered with photographs and renderings of Kitchen Dog’s future home in the design district, recently purchased through a large gift and now undergoing remodeling.
Director Tim Johnson has structured the evening to amplify the ways in which Beckett’s bare, stripped down monologues of his late work, written mostly in the 1970s and early 80s, resonates in the voices of playwrights working in the wake of this legacy. The six plays are divided by an intermission, and each “act” begins with a Beckett monologue, followed by two short pieces. The last work is the latest, allowing us to see the evolution of Beckett’s essential compassion for the comic absurdity of human life, no matter how failed or shrunken.
Rhonda Boutté opens the evening as the elderly woman in Beckett’s Rockaby, dressed in formal attire sitting in a rocking chair, with a ghostly light illuminating her gray hair done in a grand chignon. “More,” she says aloud. As she rocks, Boutté’s now still and silent woman stares into space as she listens to the sound of her own voice (pre-recorded) speaking with a soothing, lullaby-like cadence of her own mother rocking her in her arms and in a cradle. When the voice stops, the woman demands, “More!” Each time the voice appears to comfort the woman, searching for someone out there, “another living soul beyond the window.” A company member at Kitchen Dog and a longtime Undermain Theatre actor, Boutté has enormous presence, even sitting stock-still. Her high cheekbones glow on her immobile face, but her low, throaty voice is hypnotic, growing softer in each iteration until the dim light fades to dark.
Tongues, an early 1978 play by famed filmmaker and playwright Sam Shepard and director Joseph Chaikin, is a sequence of monologues delivered by a Speaker, an extraordinarily versatile and voice-shifting John S. Davies, accompanied by percussion, delivered with cool jazz precision by K-Dog company member Max Hartman, a sizzling singer and band musician in a parallel incarnation. Like Beckett’s rapt woman who must hear a voice to exist at all, the speaker in Tongues, stuck in a chair with his hands on his knees, relentlessly summarizes life after life. Davies’ voice rises and falls, as Hartman follows a revelation or a mood shift with a drum roll or a cymbal ping. A mosquito gets in the room, and Hartman zings it vibrating on a glass rim. The speaker sees life as a fast escalation downward in a series of arresting short phrases: “He was born in the middle of a story...He was honored; he was dishonored. He became old; he became older.” In one hilarious and disturbing sequence, Davies is both characters, one “famished” and the other not so much, and they yank at each other verbally, while a staccato beat holds them at deadlock.
The first act closes with Will Eno’s Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured, as complex and rich a slice of Beckett black comedy as you’d ever hope to devour in 14 minutes. Eno’s Thom Paine (based on nothing) and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, also has glints of gallows humor. Hartman, sitting stage front at a table with three mikes, is the harassed high school coach explaining the team’s losing season in terms of a “tough schedule,” and how “the strategy” was to “replenish what was gone. We’ve heard these clichéd sports show excuses from many a loser. Hartman’s initial bravado evokes laughs: “Some people thought [the season] was barely even a shambles.” His shot at expressing his losses in poetry is touchingly awful. The more he talks, however, the more he invokes his failed attempt at love and the collapse of all confidence. This failed jock is another human being at the end of his rope, a man begging anybody in Walgreens to “come clean up this mess which is my life.” Hartman grimaces, close to tears, and visibly closes his body tighter as he grips the mike. Confounded by the laughter from the press box, he asks, “Is high school ever over?” Is this hilarious, absurdly touching bastard waiting for Godot, or what? Are we all?
Davies opens the proceedings after intermission with Beckett’s A Piece of a Monologue, a 15-minute play Beckett wrote in 1979 in response to a request by an actor at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club for “a play about death.” Check. Standing at the back of the stage, upright and stiff as a corpse in a long nightshirt, Davies’ white hair glows in the light of a dim lamp. Throughout the monologue, Davies’ voice rarely veers into emotion, and is sometimes hard to hear, as he recounts memories of his childhood, his mother, his father, and his wedding day. All are photos “torn to shreds” and “swept under the bed.” A shift of perspective occurs, and we realize the speaker is now reporting graveside, and the narrative becomes more fragmented, as we wait for the chilling, inevitable fading of the globe into “that back vast.”
Boutté returns as the grinning, glowering and hilariously spooky Miss Miss, the crazy old church lady in Suzan-Lori Parks 1990 radio play Pickling, which has the same blend of dark humor and faceted poetry as her two-hander Topdog/Underdog, which received the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Hissing in revenge or chortling in glee, Boutté’s Miss Miss is just as confined as Beckett’s spectral woman in Rockaby. Here, she’s squeezed into a tiny space, perhaps in a cellar; since she constantly talks of her dead mother’s Mason jars bearing down on her. Unlike Beckett’s easily shredded photographs, Miss Miss pickles memories in the form of objects, like her mother’s smile encased in her pink gums or the sand where her long lost lover Charles once walked on the beach. Boutté’s voice moans and grows husky speaking of Charles, and becomes a sweet song when referring to a sample of her mother’s milk. Poetry doesn’t get any more concrete than Parks’ grotesque and compelling metaphors. Boutté, eyes sparking maniacally, makes this bizarre mnemonic recipe enticing.
The evening closes with the world premiere of Abe Koogler’s Lisa, My Friend, a breathless, riveting monologue delivered with lightning speed and astonishing clarity by Janielle Kastner, a vibrant young Dallas actress and writer, whose plays have been produced by The Tribe, of which she is a founding member. Koogler’s work has been developed at Kitchen Dog, and his Kill Floor premiered last fall at Lincoln Center to strong reviews. Kastner’s Young Woman is caught in the spotlight on the dark stage, but is hardly paralyzed. In typical Valley girl-style, she never shuts up about the trouble with her friend, Lisa, who she denigrates non-stop as thoughtless and uncaring. She’s bitching to a presence in the nether of off-stage beings, punctuating her tirade only occasionally with, “Are you still there?” A calm male voice (Hartman again) responds in the affirmative. We laugh easily at this familiar wide-eyed blabbermouth. Then she begins to talk of a circle event to which she wants to bring Lisa because she’s unsure of herself in such situations. She asks again if someone’s still listening, and the whole temperature of the play changes. Koogler’s solo female voice certainly evokes Beckett’s isolated identity, casting questions into the dark. Here, the answer is a stunner.
Johnson and his brave, elegant cast have packaged a unique, fast-moving and unforgettable night of theater.
» Photos by Sharen Bradford of The Dancing Image, photographed for TheaterJones. To see more, click on the slideshow icon in the floating menu at bottom left of your screen.