Review: ‘The Beckett Trio’ at Scena Theatre

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Nanna Ingvarsson is so phenomenal in these three harrowing short plays by Samuel Beckett that one can easily imagine the Nobel Prize-winning minimalist—notoriously persnickety about his stage directions—rising from the grave (center stage, a six-by-two rectangular hole, in nearly no light) and exclaiming (in a hoarse whisper): “Yes, yes, that’s precisely what I meant.” And then (brushing dust from his cadaverous face): “If only I were still alive, I could write another playlet for her.” (Whereupon, woebegone, he slowly disappears into the hole. Ten-second pause. Fade to black.)

Nana Ingvarsson as May in Footfalls. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Ingvarsson has secured a reputation as one of the best actors in town, but were she still casting about for a calling in life, deciphering the distilled texts of Beckett would be a mission with her name on it.

Robert McNamara is the Artistic Director of Scena, a company that for thirty years has been acting locally the intriguing literature he has sought out globally. Beckett’s Endgame was Scena’s first production, and now McNamara directs an enthralling hour’s worth of three spare plays, all of which touch on Beckett’s fascination/obsession with end-of-life stasis in the face of mortality.  Beckett may be the poet laureate of our inevitable decrepitude, and to some, this cryptic triptych might seem a grim night out, but do not underestimate Becket’s prosody, which has influenced more subsequent playwrights than you can shake a spear at. Not to mention: Ingvarsson’s musical mastery of Becket’s language is sublime.

Nanna Ingvarsson as May in Footfalls. Photo by

The first playlet is Footfalls, in which a woman named May (Ingvarsson) paces back and forth on a walkway of planks clip-clop-clip-clop and has a fractured conversation with the Voice of her mother (a marvelous prerecorded Nancy Robinette). May is said to be fortyish but Costume Designer Sigrid Johannesdottir has followed Beckett’s instruction to the letter, as one must (“disheveled gray hair, gray wrap hiding feet”), making May seem like the ninety her offstage mother is said to be.

Nana Ingvarsson as Mouth in Not I. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Next up is Not I, in which Ingvarsson plays Mouth, who is just that: a brightly lit red-lipped mouth appearing in darkness through a hole eight feet above the stage, per Beckett. And Mouth runs off at the mouth with a torrent of phrases and ellipses and little syntactical connection. It begins:

…out…into this world…this world…tiny little thing…before its time…in a godfor—…what?…girl?…yes…tiny little girl…into this…out into this…before her time…godforsaken hole called…called…no mater…parents unknown…he having vanished into thin air…no sooner buttoned up his breeches…she similarly…eight months later…almost to the tick…so no love…spared that…

Mouth’s monologue goes on like that for nearly eight pages, and I could not help wondering during this epic logorrhea, How in the world did Ingvarsson learn it? And how in the world did she then make it so piteous and hilarious at the same time?

Nanna Ingvarsson as Woman in Rockaby. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

The closer is Rockaby. Ingvarsson as Woman sits in a rocking chair mechanically operated from offstage so it rocks and stops, rocks and stops. Again it’s a monologue in a female voice, this time in blank verse, an end-of-life reverie with this poignant refrain

in the end came
close of a long day
sitting at her window
quiet at her window

And again Beckett’s stage directions have been executed exactly:

Prematurely old. Unkempt gray hair. Huge eyes in white expressionless face.[…] Black lacy high-necked evening gown […] Incongruous flimsy head-dress set askew with extravagant trimming to catch light when rocking.

Set Designer John D. Antone has taken the liberty of mounting a gray stained stonelike wall upstage. Lighting Designer Johnathan Alexander has taken the liberty of giving us considerably more artful lighting that Beckett requested. Sound Designer Denise Rose has taken the liberty of playing before the show and between scenes an incongruous male voice singing German opera (no more incongruous than anything else in the show). And good that they did, because it all works together terrifically.

For a gripping take on a master of modern drama, wait not. Go do’t. (That’s a stage direction.)

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

The Becket Trio plays through April 8, 2018, at Scena Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. 20002, For tickets, call  202-339-7993 or purchase them online.

 

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.