Dallas — Samuel Beckett’s short, later plays have the feeling of performance pieces you might see repeated over and over in a museum installation. On the one hand, we are watching a taut drama tightly focused on a woman or man representing the fraught human condition in which we know beauty, suffering and death all at once during our conscious lives. On the other, watching each drama evokes a powerful sense that we have always known this story and the inevitable ending. WingSpan Theatre Company is currently serving up a perfectly precise pair of Beckett’s compressed plays. Both feel like a chant or a prayer or a poem had by heart, given a pounding pulse by two elegant actors.
WingSpan Producing Artistic Director Susan Sargeant knows her Beckett, and has staged numerous award-winning productions of his work. The Irish poet and minimalist playwright won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, by which time his novels, poetry, and plays for television, radio and theater were already considered revolutionary, including Waiting for Godot, his darkly humorous play written in 1952 about the absurdity of seeking a rational motive for existence. The master wrote some 30 plays, including a number of fascinating pared-down works written in the 70s, ranging from 38 seconds to nearly half an hour. Sargeant directs two of these plays to open WingSpan’s fall season, and performs in Not I, a demanding 15-minute work. Actress Jennifer Kuenzer stalks the stage for 24 minutes in Footfalls. Big gray matter contracts to dense black carbon where time gets tricky. This is theater that must be seen live.
Footfalls begins with a darkened stage and a streak of light revealing a ghostly figure in a dirty, tattered gown (Kuenzer in light, chalky makeup, hair tangled around her face and shoulders). A bell chimes and the hollow-eyed woman walks exactly nine paces back and forth, like a metronome, measuring time and desperately trying to comfort her aging mother, who never appears, but always tells the woman that “It is too soon.” The gloomy mother, presumed to be in a hospital or nursing home, has to be reminded that she is 90 years old, and her daughter born late in her life. Lights fade, a bell chimes again and the woman is speaking in her mother’s voice telling stories of how the daughter always stayed close at home while other girls played Lacrosse. “Will you never have done?” the old woman asks? Kuenzer’s subtle shift of tone when she begins speaking of herself in the third person, as her angry mother recalls the child, is a piercing reminder of how often we remember our own lives through a parent’s version of what we did and felt. Totally spooky. Ghosts get in our heads and won’t shut up. Kuenzer’s two voices reveal how deeply the mother’s grim view of life persists in her daughter’s lived experience. All this, while never missing a rhythmic footfall that measures the distance to the old woman’s ending.
Following intermission, we enter into dark theater that becomes pitch black, except for a bright spotlight on a mouth seen through a small aperture. The brightly painted lips, belonging to Sargeant, immediately open at the center of the dark curtain and begin speaking fast and furiously, in the actor’s throaty mezzo voice. The mouth speaks in the third person, referring to a life lasting 70 years in which she had “no love of any kind at any possible stage.” Faster and faster, the mouth speaks, growing hoarse and higher as it seeks to find what she is being punished for, and why. There’s a terrible, Job-like misery in the mouth’s opening and closing. We realize in the dark room with the bright lips expressing every kind of anguish that the mouth is the one physiological attribute that can best articulate the suffering we experience. Sargeant’s demanding monologue leaves us with a particularly Brechtian image: out of the cradle, endlessly questing.
Theater happens fast and magically for the audience at WingSpan. Contributing to that sleight-of-hand effects in Two by Beckett are scenic designer Nick Brethauer’s simple black-box design; Christopher M. Ham’s atmospheric lighting design; Barbara S. Cox’s layered, earth-colored costume for the pacing woman; and Lowell Sargeant’s evocative sound design, during the plays and in between.