ONE-ACT PLAYS are always difficult to do in series. The problem results from their self-contained nature; they could work individually, but together as a production they often have very little coherence. The Caravan Theatre's Hands Off! is a pleasant exception to this sort of problem; they have put together two Becketts and one Mrozek that together make a theatrical and intellectual whole.
Hands Off! is a protest against external control in any form: the plays the Caravan has chosen are therefore political only in a very broad sense; it is-the Actor's Prologue about Power and the Indochina War that makes the political intent of the production much more specific. The Prologue moves right into Mrozek's "Strip-tease," a very funny and clearly understandable play. Two people, Man "A" representing rationality and the virtues of inner, intellectual freedom, and Man "B" representing emotionality and the virtues of physical freedom, are confined and gradually deprived of their clothing by a giant hand. The two men's approaches to the Hand differ: one fights and the other acquiesces, but in the end, both lose. David Starr Klein as the rationalist is impressive; with cool, clipped prose he contrasts nicely with Joe Volpe's frenetic Man "B." And the Hand is great: mxde of foam rubber and looking about three hundred pounds heavy, it is the personification of imperialism.
But this personification of the outside power is lost in the next play, Beckett's "Act without Words II." The outside power has become a snout-nosed prod ("the Goad") that rattles on stage to awake first Klein, then Volpe, who like wind-up tops proceed to go through their daily routine. Klein and Volpe again are a nice contrast: Klein prays to the ceiling and pops a pill before he can slump out of his sack; Volpe is already speeding: he shadow-boxes even while he eats his morning carrot.
THE OUTSIDE power is not even definable in Beckett's "Cascando," the third and least accessible of the three plays; it is only referred to in passing as "They." Beckett takes us inside someone's mind, a mind composed of only three elements, Voice, Music, and the Opener. The latter's function is to open and close the other two. Compelled forever to recount stories not of his own making, the mind drones on, "...saying to myself...finish this one...it's the right one...then rest...then sleep...no more stories...no more words...and finished it...and not the right one...couldn't rest ..." The music counterpoints the voice, the Opener protests his job, but keeps on, "I'm afraid to open. But I must open. So I open."
The Caravan has a great deal of difficulty with "Cascando." Beckett wrote it as a radio play; the Caravan stages the play with a whole new and confusing subplot, centering around the themes of freedom and release. The three parts of the mind, rather than complementing each other, with this addition instead become opponents in attempts to get across a masking tape line on the stage. When someone does succeed, a yellow light flashes on. This pattern of conflict, coupled with a great deal of unnecessary gesture, buries Beckett's originally spare, vicious play in a mass of directorial obfuscation. David Starr Klein as the Voice again gives the best performance; his reading has achieved the needed sense of frustrated desperation in spite of the direction. Joe Volpe plays Joe Volpe, and after two performances of the same sort of thing, it is pretty tiresome seeing it again. Mr. Volpe at times uses his voice and body to good effect, but all too often he does nothing but the same old character. It seems particularly out of place in "Cascando."
Hands Off! moves from a comedy of the absurd, to a tragi-comedy of depression, to simple depression; from voice and action and thought, to action and thought, to just thought. But the external power is always there. The Caravan gives us no solution; they merely pose the dilemma--"hands-off!" is only a tactic. The Prologue indicates that it is only a delaying tactic at best.