With his program notes, director Matthew Wilder sets the tone for Sledgehammer Theatre's mounting of two Samuel Beckett one-acts, Krapp's Last Tape and Play: "Beckett is smarter than we are. He is tortured; he mocks life's expectations and doesn't ask you to acknowledge, only to be affected."
Play gives us three backlit actors, each up to their neck in a body bag, explaining the story of their demise. They are monotonic and then hysterical, self-deprecating and ambivalent. To flesh out the nightmare, Beckett's characters spew out a story of adultery, compromise, melodrama and untimely death; Wilder even produces auditory chaos with a series of deafening, wall-shaking, soul-stirring sounds.
In Krapp's Last Tape, the audience is brought onto the stage, where several TV sets surround a littered desk. Enter Krapp, a crusty old codger who eats bananas, drinks scotch, wheezes, makes you uncomfortable, takes interminable dramatic pauses and, finally, offers you his last tape. The televisions come to life with images of Krapp: his tortured love, his wanderings, his playfulness and his failure to live life.
As Krapp, Bruce McKenzie (equally mesmerizing as M1 in Play) is brilliant. A member of Sledgehammer since its inception, McKenzie now works across the country, so any local appearance is worth the trek. Sarah Gunnell (W2 in Play) and Anna C. Miller (W1 in Play) are exceptional on their own, and Wilder's direction in both pieces is equally effective.
Did I like the plays? "Like" is not a word appropriate for a Beckett piece. Did I flinch? Did my brain hurt? Did I think, contemplate self, try to organize my belief system, question it, and ultimately weep a bit for humanity? Oh, yes.
Play and Krapp's Last Tape at Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., Sept. 14-16, 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. $15-$18.