As I sat in the intimate DCAC theatre, awaiting 3 by Samuel Beckett, I thought of the following Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” As I mulled over this quote, I realized that no matter how I felt about this evening of theatre, the bottom line was that it was being produced. Actors, a director, and multiple designers were working together to bring these pieces of theatre to life and that, in and of itself, should be celebrated. Little did I know that I was in for a moving compilation of one-act plays.
The first play in the program, That Time, is a man’s recollections of various events in his life that stand out to him in his old age. With one stark light shining on the actor’s face, and a black sea of fabric beneath him, all the audience has to go on is the actor’s use of his face and voice. On the surface, this is a lengthy monologue about events that don’t seem connected to each other. In the capable hands of Brit Herring, playing Listener, this piece was dynamic, engaging, and perfectly paced. At many points throughout the piece, Herring made vocal adjustments, so as to reflect who he was at the time of the event he was describing. These characters reappeared multiple times, allowing the audience to latch onto each distinct character by the specificity of the voice work. Herring’s deep understanding of this work was obvious, and he navigated the pauses and repetition of the piece with grace and ease.
Moving on from a solo recollection of past events, the program progresses to Embers. In this radio play, Henry, played by John Brennan, recollects people and events of his past. As opposed to the abstraction of the previous piece, Embers is one step closer to realism. We see Henry in a well-worn olive overcoat, playing a game of chess against an imaginary opponent. The voices of loved ones and past acquaintances play over a speaker, and we witness Henry’s dialogue with these spirits. In this piece, Beckett plays with repetition again. Henry makes a move on the chessboard and immediately takes it back multiple times in the piece. He also speaks to whatever entity is in charge of re-playing various sound cues from his past, asking this “spirit” to turn them off or try again, multiple times. Brennan’s brand of discomfort in the intimate moments of these recollections made up for the awkward pacing of the piece. The timing of the sound cues in his conversations with his wife and daughter seemed to have a bit of delay. This will be ironed out with more performances under the actor and technician’s belts.
Last, but certainly not least, the evening of Beckett ends in the most realistic of the three pieces. In, Rough for Theatre II, two associates, A (Bertrand) and B (Morvan), enter to take stock of the life of the despondent C (Croker), who stands with his back to the audience as he gazes out a window. A (Bertrand), played by Kim Curtis, and B (Morvan), played by Ned Read, carry this piece with comedic timing, both vocally and physically. This pair is fascinating to watch onstage. Each actor makes big, bold choices, but I can’t help but feel that their approaches to this stylized piece of theatre are opposite. Read seemed to be taking a more realistic approach to the scene work, while Curtis made multiple asides to the audience, as opposed to staying invested in his scene partner. While each approach could work for the piece, I think that both onstage created a lack of cohesion.
The direction of this evening of theatre, by Ross Heath, feels strong in calculated moments, and falls flat in all other moments. There is an overall lack of cohesion, especially in Rough for Theatre II, which took me out of the plays abruptly and made it hard for me to engage back into the experience. While the plays had their own rhythms, the overall rhythm and pace of the show was rocky at best. Hopefully this is ironed out in future performances. As they say, practice makes perfect. Some aspects of theatre require practice with an audience present, out of the rehearsal setting.
The technical elements in this production are wonderful. J. Michael Whalen’s sound design shines brightly in Embers. The recordings are crisp and precise. The non-verbal cues are also wonderful additions to the piece, and really elevate the work. Stephen Strosnider’s scenic design contraption on which the actor performs That Time is wonderful, and fits the abstraction of the piece. Adalia Vera Tonneyck’s costumes create specific characters for the three pieces, taking us from utter abstraction to the most realistic of the three pieces in a clear and concise manner. Eric Wells’ lighting design also escorts the audience on the journey of the three pieces, by creating distinct environments for the three pieces, and highlighting the playing space nicely.
Overall, I found this compilation of plays deeply moving and utterly fascinating. I left the theatre thinking about the act of recollecting one’s past, and how different that experience must be for people. I also revisited the quote I thought about during the pre-show, and I believe that this production made big, bold choices. While some of these choices resonated with me and some of these choices left me quizzical, they happened and I experienced them. That is the beauty of theatre. No audience member will have the same experience I had in the theatre, and that is beautiful. Catch this evening of theatre while you still can!
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
3 by Samuel Beckett plays through February 3, 2013 at Arcturus Theater Company art Distric of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC) – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.
Read a preview of Arcturus Theater Company’s ’3 by Samuel Beckett: That Time, Embers, & Rough for Theatre II’ by Ross Heath.