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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

An Evening with Beckett

Or: Drops from a Faucet

Theoretically, this should be an event to go down in history. Rick Cluchey, close friend and protege of the esteemed playwright Samuel Beckett, as well as co-founder of the improbable San Quentin Drama Workshop, performs his masters one act Krapp’s Last Tape exactly as he did some thirty years ago. At the end of his performance he then regales his audience with memories of his time on the road with Beckett and behind bars in San Quentin. Classic Modernist plays and a first hand account of a legend at work, what could be more enthralling? It is even more impressive to consider that the performance of Krapp’s Last Tape is directed by Beckett himself, now in his grave these past twenty four years, and the recordings of Krapp’s memories are in fact the same tapes that Cluchey recorded in West Berlin in the 1970’s. Theoretically, anyone remotely interested in the history of twentieth century theater should flock to the performance.

However, despite the impressive pedigree, the production of Krapp’s Last Tape is, perhaps intentionally, a difficult pill to swallow. We find ourselves in a dark room with an elderly misanthrope who, for most of his life, has recorded his memories on a reel to reel device and takes delight in scorning the various opinions outlooks of his past self. Cluchey, from long acquaintance with the character admirably replicates the stoop and twitches, the croaking chortles and sudden terrified pauses as Krapp feels death coming for him. The “reality of doing”, be it rewinding the tape, or knocking the light askew or even unpeeling a banana, grounds our attention in the long silences. Yet, the effect of this dried morsel (who’s posture and mannerisms put one in mind of Ebenezer Scrooge raised and tutored by Tolkin’s Gollum) as he slings his possessions about and argues with his past life, fail to illicit more than the occasional contemptuous laugh.

It is not necessarily Cluchey’s fault, or even Beckett’s, that the audience, at least this particular audience was unable to connect, the fault lies in a design flaw and a concession to the audience’s safety. Even before we begin, the mood of being trapped with Krapp in the prison of his mind is rent asunder by an unfortunately placed emergency exit sign on the back wall, that draws the eye in the dark like flies to a corpse. The experience is like watching a faucet drip, the greatest Beckett lovers will be able to see the microbe kingdoms of meaning in every line and action, but the rest of us settle back in our seats trying to tear our eyes away from the glowing “exit” (so antithetical to Beckett and Sartre alike) and in our impatience mark each falling drop with a chorus of “dull-dull-dull.”

The second half of the evening, Sam and Rick, offers much more promise. A friendly scholar quizzes Cluchey in conversations reminiscent of Inside the Actors Studio. The actor has many powerful stories to tell about the prisoners of San Quentin and their struggles to find identity and expression through the theater. The tales are tinged with tragedy, irony, and no small measure of wonder. Cluchey also relates his experiences of being found by and working under Beckett in France and West Germany. Sadly, the man is wrung out (as can be expected after having played such a wringing character who puts so much into so little), and the stories are drawn out by his conversational companion (a different one for every two nights of the run). Someone also made the foolish decision to show the complete footage of The Cage, a prison drama Cluchey wrote while incarcerated, on a screen behind the speakers. The audience's attention is trifurcated between the two men and the televised play behind. As we try to focus on scholar, survivor and source material, our attentions gather only snippets and the full stories bleed out into oblivion.

Now for those students and scholars of theater all these sad oversights and faucet-drop deliveries will be immaterial to the fact that history is being played out for perhaps the last time. If you can steel yourself against distraction and channel your attention to a valiant artist, through the long silences and the stench of ripe bananas, by all means snap up the tickets. However if you are looking for a good night of theater, something that will stimulate and draw you out of yourself to question broader nature of humanity, then treasure is not worth the trial.

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