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The Avant-Garde and the Absurd Comes to Life: Beckett Shorts at the Tang, Review

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Quad, Samuel BeckettI have never been one to enjoy museums, a bias that became deeply rooted within me when I was growing up in Washington D.C. My parents tried to captivate my interest with the world-renowned museums available to us, but I would have none of it. To express my disdain politely I would say, “You want me to walk around for two hours staring at bowls of fruit and dead presidents? Is that a joke or are you legitimately trying to bore me to death?”

However, I recently had a conversion experience courtesy of the Skidmore Theatre Department, where I went to a museum and I enjoyed every minute of it. Director Carolyn Anderson had the artistic genius to stage abstract plays in an abstract art exhibit, and it worked perfectly. Her production of Beckettshorts, a collection of short plays by Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, was performed in the Jewel Thief exhibit at Skidmore’s TANG Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.

The Jewel Thief is an exhibit of abstract works by over 60 artists. The main room of the exhibit is enormous, covered by a gigantic slanted ceiling, while the layout of the exhibit was energetic and unconventional, as if the paintings and sculptures had organically sprung from where they pleased instead of being neatly placed. The combination of the popping bright colors and the gorgeously bizarre shapes reminded me of an elegant version of a Dr. Seuss world. In the talented hands of The Skidmore Theatre Department, and the wonderful costume design by April Clark, this exhibit was transformed into a mystical landscape, populated by strange characters existing on the fringes of our human understanding.

The first short play, Footfalls, was performed by the talented actresses Angela Doran and Claire Saxe, in the Tang’s atrium lobby.  Saxe was clothed in a dirty hooded cloak, and paced back and forth in front of the audience before finally calling out “Mother.” I almost jumped out of my skin when Doran answered her in a raspy voice, and entered by creeping halfway-down the stairs completely covered in darkness. The two women began speaking in Beckett’s halting, haiku-like language. I gathered the relationship was dysfunctional, and I felt the daughter’s seething resentment and the mother’s cruel self-righteousness. Yet, the facts of the situation were lost to me, as if I had stumbled into someone else’s dream without any context or back-story. Saxe spent most of the piece pacing and talking, while the Mother/Voice answered her from the shadows of the stairs. The performances were excellent, and I was content to be lost while enjoying the bizarre, poetic text.

For the second show, Come and Go, ushers directed the audience to walk into the main exhibit room. We sat down, facing three young women sitting perfectly still on a bench, each looking exactly like a department store mannequin, or possibly a famous painting, in a  visually striking fashion that fit in perfectly among the art in the gallery. I was beginning to notice the dark streak in Beckett’s writing, as these mannequins/women continually gossiped and back-stabbed each other, all juxtaposed with the bright colors and beautiful forms created by the costumes and surrounding art-work.

Samuel BeckettThe third short, Breath, featured the sinister wailing and wheezing from the corner of the museum, performed nicely by Dara Silverman. There were no words as far as I could tell, just wailing. I got goose bumps, as the environment momentarily felt like a haunted house taking place in a funky art exhibit. Breath flowed seamlessly into the fourth short, What Where, in which it was implied that five men with flowing white hair were torturing each other in turn, while not acquiring the proper information. To say that it was surreal would be an understatement. Actors Alexander Greaves, Ben Jurney, Brandon O’Sullivan, Grady Shea, and Sam Szabo successfully transported the audience to a timeless realm, possibly even hell itself based on the casual way torture was discussed. Despite the dark subject matter, I loved this piece because it was horrific without being graphic, something that is quite difficult to accomplish.

The only show that fell a little flat was the fifth, Radio I. I am sure the actors were just fine, but it was hard to understand them through the use of fuzzy radio effects. The actors were speaking from off-stage, while the audience was left to stare at an inanimate retro-looking radio for ten minutes. Beckett’s unique language is much like Shakespeare’s unique language, in that it’s best performed with live actors onstage. Beckett originally created this as a radio play, but I’d be intrigued to see how it would work if it were physically staged.

The sixth short, Catastrophe was fabulous. A Director (Brandon O’Sullivan) and his Assistant (Sophia Lewis) were working on an art piece, a sculpture of a man. The sculpture was played by Alexander Greaves, who shivered uncontrollably as the Assistant took off his coat and unbuttoned his nightshirt. The audience clearly felt sorry for the sculpture/man with every new command from the Director, leading me to wonder what would happen if every artwork had feelings. When at last the sculpture was determined finished and put on display, the silhouette made on the wall was so beautiful it was hard to imagine it not being a permanent part of the exhibit.

The final short, Quad, was more like a dance than anything else. The ushers led us back to the lobby, where the seats had been rearranged into two sections so that the audience faced each other during the performance. Carl Landa was the percussionist and kept up a driving beat, while performers in different colored robes walked in patterns around and around each other. I felt like we were gathered at some kind of tribal ceremony and the performers were the flames of the bonfire. Really though it could have symbolized a thousand different things, and I’m sure each audience member saw something different. The performers always seemed to be in danger of colliding, but they never did as they continuously zoomed in and out of each other. This combined with the fast paced music made me feel like we were certainly building towards something terrible or beautiful, maybe something that would make me jump. It never came though. At the end the hooded figures just drifted off-stage. Arguably it was anti-climatic, but somehow that didn’t matter. The meditative journey was so exceptional, that no ending would have sufficed.

Overall, my biggest complaint about Beckettshorts was that I wanted to watch even more shorts after it ended. Beckettshorts was like an otherworldly experience, psychedelic even. It proved the transcendent powers of art and I was so proud of the Skidmore College kids for pulling it off. Their next show is Carolo Goldini’s The Servant of Two Masters, directed by Alma Becker, which opens November 19th. If it’s anything like Beckettshorts, the stars will seem a little brighter on the ride back home.

-Briavel Schultz is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.

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