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'Krapp' is subversive, but bad

Published August 1, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Bad Beckett is probably better than no Beckett at all in the centennial of his birth.

Steve Garland's performance of Krapp's Last Tape, a death-haunted encounter between an old man and his younger self on tape, demonstrates how tricky it can be to make this material work onstage (Beckett is one playwright whose work invariably reads better than it plays), but at least it retains the radical spirit of drama that compromises not one whit in the face of commercial expectations of art and entertainment.

In that respect, the production by Quirky White Chicks Productions and the Renegade Theatre Project at American Stage is a refreshing break with theater as usual, especially in a show that doesn't get started until 11 p.m. Late-night Beckett has a deliciously subversive atmosphere.

But so much seems wrong in the production, directed by T. Scott Wooten, starting with its fiddling with Beckett's directions by replacing the audio tape recorder stipulated in the script with a video player. So instead of having wizened old Krapp listen to the disembodied voice of himself at 39, as the playwright intended, the younger version is seen on a TV screen. This creates a fatal dilemma: Do you watch Krapp onscreen or do you watch Krapp in the flesh?

Surely the facial features and expressions of Krapp as he contemplates the folly of his long-ago pretensions are a big part of what acting the play is all about, but in the Wooten-Garland staging, attention is irresistibly drawn to the video. Any sense of intimacy or introspection is obliterated by the distraction of the flickering visual image. To make matters worse, the video's sound is inaudible at times, making a mishmash of Beckett's precisely fragmented dialogue, an unforgivable lapse. When Krapp muses on the meaning of "viduity," the word isn't clearly heard on the video.

Garland, his beard stubble and hair dusted with white, is too young for the old Krapp, and that phony impression is magnified by seeing the actor play the character closer to his own age onscreen. With audiotape, the age discrepancy might have been finessed.

Beckett used to complain that actors insisted on injecting too much shtick into his characters, and Garland's stagey performance is a prime example of why. His laborious Method style can be insufferable, full of hawking and spitting and guttural mumbling that make the old man look pathetic.

As the younger Krapp, glass of wine in hand, he obscures the deceptively evocative imagery ("the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying") with an unfocused, stream-of-consciousness delivery.

Even the catchy piano music of Philip Glass that opens and closes the 68-minute performance feels out of place.

[Last modified August 1, 2006, 05:48:01]

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