He Gets on Your Nerves

GTC tries to stay close to Sam Becketts twisted vision

Photo by Keith MayIn 1973, the esteemed actress Jessica Tandy complained to the equally esteemed playwright Samuel Beckett that the breakneck pace of his play Not I, in which Tandy was starring, made the play unintelligible. The writer's response? "I am not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect."

That's Beckett. On the page, he can be analyzed and scrutinized as far as anyone is willing to go. Onstage, he has to be felt in the gut.

Ask Patricia Boyette, who for the past three and a half years has stayed close to Billie Whitelaw, a venerable English actress who worked closely with the idiosyncratic Beckett.

"She has a real mission to try to pass on the information that Beckett gave her as a director," Boyette said. "She's one of the last living people he worked with. And she's trying to pass on his legacy, the way that he envisioned his plays should be done."

For the next two weekends, we have the chance to get as close to the mind—or mouth—of Samuel Beckett as humanly possible. Boyette stars in two of the four short Beckett plays that are part of the Grove Theater Center's (GTC) ambitious The Beckett Project.

The Beckett-Whitelaw-Boyette-GTC connection is a kind of oral history meets literary history meets avant-garde theater. The four plays—Not I, Rockaby, Act Without Words I and Ohio Impromptu—aren't laugh-a-minute crowd pleasers.

With the exception of the 1956 piece Act Without Words I, the plays in The Beckett Project came late in the playwright's career, when he was far more involved in the actual production of his pieces as a director. Long before his death in 1989, Beckett stopped writing full-length plays, focusing instead on short, fragmented works that featured utter precision of movement, strict economy of language—and a bunch of really weird shit. As one writer put it, the comic tramps of his landmark plays (Waiting for Godot and Endgame) were replaced by "ghostly shapes, only half-seen, struggling to retain a feeble hold on their sense of themselves and of the space in which they move and speak."

Not I features a disembodied mouth onstage uttering a steady stream of words designed to mimic the speed of thought. Rockaby features an old woman rocking and uttering the word "more" as her taped voice rhythmically recites a haunting, lyrical, disembodied poem.

Those are the two plays in which Boyette is featured. Her director, Phillip Zarrilli, who has been working closely with Whitelaw, stars in Act Without Words I, a mime play set in a desert and featuring a man flung onto a stage and interacting with three cubes, a carafe of water, a pair of scissors and a palm tree—all of which descend from the sky. The fourth play, Ohio Impromptu, which includes Zarrilli and Welsh actor Peader Kirk, involves a man reading a fragmented passage from a book while another man, dressed in a long black coat, knocks on a table.

According to Boyette, characters in all four plays are grappling with "loneliness, trying to find someone else out there, making a connection."

Whitelaw, whose wide-ranging career records remarkable successes, including her role as Desdemona to Olivier's Othello and the evil nanny in The Omen, calls Not I (the weirdest and scariest of the four plays at GTC) an inner scream, an endless nightmare pouring from an old woman. Boyette describes it as a monologue delivered by a woman whose "life is flashing before her and who has not been able to express herself and now it's vomiting forth from her mouth without her knowing why."

Scream. Nightmare. Death. Vomit. The beauty of Beckett's work is that when done well—the way he visualized it—each viewer walks away with his or her own interpretation of what the play means. Or with nothing at all. In that sense, The Beckett Project illustrates Beckett's ability to capture onstage what the Abstract Expressionists did on canvases.

But the way to get that across goes against what most actors are taught. Just as Beckett's audiences must ignore everything they have ever come to expect from a play—strong characters with clear motivations, a well-told story, etc.—actors cannot approach his plays from the Stanislavski "being in the moment"/ "who is this character"/"what's my motivation" school. For Beckett, it was important that an actor not act—that she or he instead be acted upon by the words.

"Beckett plays the notes through the actor; you're the instrument," Boyette said. "And you have to trust the audience will hear those notes instead of you manipulating the text."

The text is the character, not the person speaking. That's why Boyette says Beckett has to be approached musically. Find the rhythm of the piece, and then, through constant repetition, something magical happens in which the actor's subconscious begins interacting with the text.

You could argue that such a process subverts the very idea of theater. But spend a few minutes with Boyette on the still-bare stage of the Gem Theater, and you get the idea that subversion is what Beckett demands. And for those few actors who have made Beckett their mission, there seems no other choice than to do it like the man wanted.

"This is the most difficult thing I've ever had to work on, and I've done one or two things," Boyette says in an understatement. A graduate acting teacher at the University of Wisconsin, Boyette has a glittering résumé, including her work with Tennessee Williams on a version of his Two Character Play in San Francisco.

"It takes you to the limit both physically and emotionally, and there's no margin of error," said Boyette, who performed Not I a handful of times in Wales. "You're either there or not, and you know whether you're connected immediately."

Though less than 20 minutes long, Not I is one of the most brutally demanding plays ever written for a performer. "Billie described the experience as falling backwards into hell," Boyette said. "For me, it feels like I'm being sucked into a vortex. It bruises me inside and out. I'm shackled during the play, like I'm in jail."

It's not merely the mental strain of memorizing a fragmented monologue designed to re-create the speed of thought. It's the intense physical discomfort of being strapped to an apparatus that Boyette likens to a medieval torture chamber.

The mouth is the only part of Boyette's body you'll see in this play; the rest is behind a screen. Her eyes are pressed shut and her ears covered, making it difficult to fully hear her own voice. In order to focus her energy into her mouth, Boyette's body is held motionless—hands clasped around a metal support, feet shackled. And she is suspended eight feet above the ground.

To cope with the physical demands, Zarrilli has worked closely with Boyette on a regimen that includes tai chi, yoga and an Indian form of martial arts.

The reason for the intense physicality? Because that, too, is what Beckett wanted: to take the mind out of the process and facilitate a total emotional connection between performer and viewer/listener.

"It's really, really beautiful work and an incredible challenge to get it right," Boyette said. "And as a human being, Beckett takes me to places I've never been before. They're not always places I want to go, but that's what makes me need to go there."

The Beckett Project at Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through April 15. Fri., $18.50; Sat., $22.50; student-rush tickets 30 minutes before each performance, $10.

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