‘Beckett at 100’ Still Going Strong

“This is not a theatrical event.”

Director Robert Scanlan emphasized the un-theatricality of “Beckett at 100” with this line in his introduction to the show. As Scanlan explained, Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett wrote the three plays, which made up the New College Theatre’s most recent offering, independently and intended for them to be produced through different media. “Words and Music” and “Cascando” were originally for the radio and “...but the clouds...” for television.

Despite its ambition of bringing the three plays together, “Beckett at 100,” produced by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, always strove to maintain a certain level of this un-theatricality. Scanlan, professor of the practice of theater in the Harvard’s English department, kept the works’ original media in mind in several key decisions, like setting the stage elements in specific geometric configurations and bringing in technology as a physical presence on stage. It was Scanlan’s innovative and creative interpretation of Beckett’s radio and television plays that brought an altogether new—and wonderful—dimension to these unique pieces of theater.

“Words and Music” and “Cascando” both feature an artist (Alvin Epstein) frustrated in his attempts to create art. The plays follow his efforts to control and combine the production of words and music. Actor  Mickey Solis portrays the former as Joe in “Words and Music” and Voice in “Cascando.” An ensemble of pianist Donald Berman, percussionist Robert Schulz, and violinist Gil Morgenstern personifies music as Bob in “Words and Music” and Music in “Cascando.”

These two plays featured a geometrically triangular relationship between the artist, words, and music on stage. Epstein looked out and addressed the audience from atop a small, central stage as Solis and the musicians stood on either side of him. One of the world’s most experienced Beckett actors, Epstein deftly conveyed the tiresome and even agonizing perspective of an artist through his contorted expressions.

In the roles of Joe and Voice, Solis energized the stage with his animated portrayal of prose. The musicians not only added a soundtrack appropriate to the play’s themes of frustration and desire for beauty, but also integrated well into the show as actors.

From the beginning, Scanlan’s exposition made the audience aware of its own presence as an essential part of the night’s production, but also subordinated it to the future audiences of television and radio. Scanlan used this complicated awareness to emphasize the theme of the three plays: the process of creating art.

Scanlan brought the disjunction between the two types of audience into particular focus in “…but the clouds…,” introducing new elements onto the stage and expanding the triangular relationship of the first two plays physically as well as metaphorically. A video camera that served to bring the television audience into the live audience’s consciousness was featured prominently on stage—a marked contrast from the “On Air” sign that hung unobtrusively in an upper corner during the first two plays. The triangular dynamic of artist, words, and music became a four-point relationship between Voice (Epstein), Man (Solis), the camera, and a screen placed on the stage.

Voice—the newest incarnation of Epstein’s artist—was turned away from the audience, completely excluding them from the relationship between Beckett’s characters. He experimented with a description of his lover’s face, editing and restating a description of the moment in which he first saw her again and again. Epstein’s hauntingly lovelorn voice embodied the painful evolutionary process of artistic creation, one which ultimately brought him closer to his lover.

Epstein’s modes of expressing his inexplicable anguish over love, age, and the idea of his lover grew increasingly complex. And Scanlan’s directorial decisions—along with John R. Malinowski’s work as scenic environment and lighting designer—impressively reflected this increasing complexity. Not only did he add more elements to the stage, but he also infinitely increased the scope and reach of the artist. By introducing a camera onto the stage, the artist (and Beckett himself) was finally able to convey the process of communicating his art to a larger public.

Director Scanlan ingeniously explored what happens when a play is no longer just a theatrical event. With the help of an intricate and versatile score by Martin Pearlman, and skilled actors and musicians across the board, Beckett’s plays entered a completely new and living dimension of performance.

—Crimson reviewer Juli Min can be reached at kmin@fas.harvard.edu.