Beckett's minimalism a maximum challenge

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Chris Damen and Kailen Fleck in “Ohio Impromptu,” part of UW-Madison University Theatre’s “I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On,” playing Oct. 18-Nov 4. - PHOTO:Brent Nicastro

Playwright and poet Samuel Beckett believed that the less there is to say, the better it is said. What the Nobel Prize-winning Irish author had to say and how he said it, especially in the plays of his later period, were remarkable and jarring to actors and audiences alike.

Toward the end of his career, Beckett felt that theater contained too much clutter and that most plays, including his own first work “Waiting for Godot” (1956), were too long. His later plays became increasingly condensed, minimalistic, precise, formal and even symmetrical. Beckett insisted that actors and production companies follow precise specification as outlined in the plays.

Beckett’s minimalist approach to theater is explored in depth in “I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On: A Collection of Short Plays by Samuel Beckett.” The production opens the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theatre’s 2012-13 season. It’s a collection of rarely performed, intense one-act plays that opens Oct. 18 and runs for 11 performances through Nov. 3.

The six short works are to be performed in the Mitchell and Helmsley theaters and the theater department scene shop in Vilas Hall. Ushers will guide audience members to the different locations. The varied spaces are designed to cleanse the intellectual palate between plays and open the mind to Beckett’s ideas, says acting professor  Patricia Boyette, who is directing the production.

“Beckett’s later plays are very compact, very precise and very dense, like eating very rich food,” says Boyette, who has performed in and directed Beckett’s plays around the world. “For the audience to experience one piece after the other all in a theater black-box space would be extremely difficult. The senses have to be reset and the pieces separated to be experienced individually.”

The first part of the evening will include “Ohio Impromptu,” “Play” and “Eh Joe.” The first two pieces were written for live performance, while “Eh Joe” was written for television and will include pre-recorded sequences. 

The evening’s second half begins with “Catastrophe,” often viewed as an allegory of totalitarianism and considered one of Beckett’s most political pieces. “Come and Go,” one of the author’s most approachable plays, is a circular study of three women’s conversations about life, marriage and death. Finally, “Not I” projects the “inner scream” of a character known as the Mouth, which is observed by both an auditor on stage and the audience.

Possibly the best known and most controversial of Beckett’s short works, “Not I” features a lead character that is literally an actor’s mouth segregated from the rest of the body, mounted high on a blackened stage and speaking at an extremely rapid rate. It is an exhausting role for a performer and one that Boyette herself played when UW Theatre did The Beckett Project, a series of Beckett shorts in 2006, and again this past summer during a festival of Beckett plays on the island of Malta.

“This is the first time I will be directing the piece rather than performing it,“ says Boyette, who is part of the U.K.-based Llanarth Group, headed by former UW-Madison theater instructor and fellow Beckett aficionado Phillip Zarrilli. “It was a difficult decision to give this piece, perhaps the most difficult piece ever written for an actor to perform, over to a student actor. But it is breathtaking for me to see it from the outside.”

The play represents the mental breakdown of its lead character, with a silent auditor offering consolation from far below. The mouth moves faster than the mind and the non-stop torrent of words and sentences requires discipline, courage and a certain vulnerability from the actor.

“If the Edvard Munch painting ‘The Scream’ was given voice, it would not be unlike ‘Not I,’” Boyette says.

In interpreting the work, Boyette was mentored by Billie Whitelaw, the English actor and friend of Beckett for whom the play was written. As part of the Beckett Project, Boyette’s experiences with Zarrilli, who uses Asian martial arts techniques to discipline his students’ minds and bodies, further gave her the understanding, stamina and mind/body connection to tackle Beckett.

“I never get tired of performing and directing these works,” Boyette says. “They feed my mind, imagination and soul.”

“The Beckett experience begins and ends in stillness and silence, but his plays are still less arcane, less formidable and more accessible than people think,” Boyette says. “His plays are profoundly human and about the human need to create order out of disorder and sense out of no-sense. Is there anyone who can’t relate to that?”

UW Theatre season at a glance

“I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On: A Collection of Short Plays by Samuel Beckett” – Oct. 18-Nov. 3

“The Cradle Will Rock” – Nov. 16–Dec. 2

Special Event: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” performed by The Acting Co., NYC –Feb. 7–8

“Woyzeck” – early March (date to be determined)

“Wondrous Tales of Old Japan II” – April 5 –17

“Cloud 9” – April 19–May 4

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