It's tempting to think that when Samuel Beckett reached his own existential abyss, he neither screamed in terror nor laughed at the absurdity. If his life imitated his art, a wry grin creased his face, a belch escaped his lips, he thought momentarily of sex, and he began writing.
Beckett knew that life was a joke—but a serious joke that meant nothing and everything. That's why his plays are shot through with defiance and defeatism, obtuseness and stark clarity, toilet humor and lyricism, a profound sense of sadness and a bizarre sense of joviality. He did all this with an economy of words and a force of vision that, when told well, can be breathtaking to behold. When told poorly, it can be a dreary stretch.
Robert G. Leigh's production of the four Beckett plays in That Which Remains realizes Beckett's incomparable ability to communicate so much while saying so little. Using a roster of mostly young actors who, I'm guessing, have little experience with Beckett's demanding rhythms and form-rattling excursions, Leigh still captures the irritating frustration and spellbinding brilliance that make Beckett a formidable artist.
Leigh is obviously a Beckett aficionado. You see that in the program when he quotes the aging Beckett describing the increasingly arduous task of writing as a process in which each word seems "an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness." But Leigh also appreciates Beckett's clowning, directing several of his actors toward likeable performances that may rankle Beckett purists but which allow another entry point into the playwright's work.
That Which Remainscontains a couple of Beckett burps, but the evening is bookended by two of his meatiest short plays. Things start well with Play, in which three people (Lisa C. Zaradich, Jocelyn A. Brown and Patrick Sweetman) are buried up to their necks in urns. Through the use of long pauses, repetitive speech and bursts of dialogue sparked by harsh spotlights, we discover that they're condemned for eternity to replay a love triangle over and over. The technical elements and performances blend perfectly, giving a horror-film ambiance to the proceedings.
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The next two pieces are, relatively speaking, Beckett lite. Act Without Words IIis a mime piece, in which Man A (Matt Deller) and Man B (Casey Long) begin the play encased in plastic garbage bags. Both are prodded to life by a long, metal, claw-like device. Man A's movements are slow and lethargic; Man B is lively and energetic. Both actors do fine jobs, but even for Beckett, there just isn't much here. Same goes for Come and Go, in which three impeccably dressed women (Heather Howe, Alex Bueno and Letitia Chang) talk about . . . something. The fine performances can't cover for Beckett's slim theme, and I fantasized about the Snickers bar I'd enjoy at intermission.
Things pick up after intermission with an excellent rendition of Krapp's Last Tape. Everything about this piece—from the harsh lighting and vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder to the perfectly detailed set and Ken Rugg's awesome portrayal of Krapp—works perfectly. Rugg captures the profound loneliness and silliness of Krapp, who, on the occasion of his birthday, replays a tape of himself recalling lost love and fading dreams some 30 years earlier. This is Beckett's best short play, and through Rugg's performance and the precise technical elements, you get a genuine sense of the man's obsession. By play's end—with Krapp slumped at his table, overwhelmed by either the weariness of life, the weight of memory or just one banana too many—you genuinely care about this guy and, by extension, every other Eleanor Rigby out there.
Like an abstract expressionist painting, people walk away from Beckett with wildly divergent readings. He befuddles, inspires, pisses off, touches, bores, challenges, induces sleep, amuses—or all that or nothing. By directing him in neither overly irreverent nor reverential fashion, Leigh gives you the choice to decide whether what you're watching is inspired theater or a waste of time. Ideally, you'll walk away realizing it's both—and you'll appreciate Beckett for that gift.
That Which Remains at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 22. $13-$15.