Dilutions of Grandeur? | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Dilutions of Grandeur?

More ultimately equals less in Wordshed's current brief survey of Beckett, Pinter and Joyce


Sometimes the more you throw against the wall, the less anything sticks. Case in point: Accomplices, the first joint offering by Wordshed Productions and Ghost and Spice Productions, currently showing at UNC's Swain Hall. For despite individually bright moments, this compendium of one-acts by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, bookended by the opening and closing passages of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, inadvertently proves that, no matter how closely three literary subversives are related, they still can be presented in a way that largely cancels one another out.

By now, students of English literature will have already connected the dots between these three lions whose works literally spanned the 20th century. Before achieving his own measure of fame, Beckett served as Joyce's secretary and was instrumental in realizing the completion of his last novel, Finnegans Wake. Beckett's stark, later work in turn would set the stage for Pinter's own dark musings.

But if Accomplices' program notes neatly tie the three together, the ensuing production serves more to cast them far apart. There's little doubt that the selections here were chosen with an eye toward showcasing the authors' diversity. Still, by the end of the show, the fundamental gaps between the three leave us wondering what, if anything, they had in common.

Regional audiences by now know that Matthew Spangler has successfully sliced the Gordian knot of Joyce's prose on any number of occasions on stage. At the start, he and theatrical accomplice Nicole Taylor bring coherence and playfulness to the account of either the fall of man or Tim Finnegan. Later, the pair returns to explore Joyce's elegiac benediction, in which the speaker commends himself to a watery grave. One of the most haunting moments this month on stage comes when, following Joyce's typography, Taylor and Spangler mimic the halting cadence of a slowing heart, dividing the syllables of the book's last few words: "a way a lone a last a loved ... "

But this memorable final moment was fundamentally compromised, along with others, by director Jay O'Berski's apparently inexhaustible series of boorish sound cues. By then it had become predictable: Throughout the night, cheesy, uptempo mid-century popular songs would step on the actors' last lines in the various sections, shattering the moments just constructed. How terribly postmodern.

Though each song was apparently selected for their maximum lyrical irony with what came before or after, I'm at a loss to explain how a Jolson-esque singer inviting his little sonny boy to climb upon his lap could be said to honor Harold Pinter's One for the Road, which concerns the death of small child at the hands of a totalitarian death squad. Such moments make us wonder if the director has yet learned the difference between irony, poor taste and theatrical self-sabotage.

Brevity and dubious slam segues compromised the Joyce passages and Pinter's far too timely exploration of a government with a license to terrorize its own citizens.

Nothing of the Irish idyll at the beginning prepares us for the jump to what at first sounds like a South African interrogation room in Pinter's psychological drama. Nor does anything suggest why the two should be remotely linked.

While we've previously applauded John Murphy's ability to intimidate on stage, time works against him here as Nicholas, the interrogator who's the embodiment of a morally bankrupt state. Murphy's character plumbs the chill of the abyss when he says of his subjects, with apparent true concern, "They're so vulnerable. Their souls shine through their eyes." The words are doubly discomfiting since they're directed at Victor, a man whose torn and blood-stained clothing clearly indicates he's just survived a night of torture. The ferocity with which Nicholas grills Victor's wife, Gila, is similarly impressive.

Even so, the character seems out of his depth when asserting what might be his twin religious beliefs--that God speaks through him in the torture chambers and that death is "the purest, most harmonious thing there is."

The brevity of his moments with Spangler and Taylor further compromises the possibility of suspense. It also undermines the sense of complete control the timelessness of an interrogation in the belly of the beast gives such a monster over his subjects. Murphy's character seems directed more than once to get his distasteful chores with this husband and wife over with as quickly as possible. It's arguably the last strategy a true torture master would contemplate to get desired results.

Though Spangler and Taylor both believably convey the physical damage of torture, suspense is further limited when Nicholas' gentle interview with their child appears only as a truncated, tape-recorded interlude between scenes on stage.

Record has it that the initial productions of One for the Road lasted 45 minutes. What this version gains with speed, it loses with dramatic intensity.

It's a particular shame, given the current moment our world occupies. Pinter's warnings against the high price of hyperpatriotism have rarely been more timely than they are now. After all, once any government--including the United States--begins selectively violating human rights, where does it stop? And who makes it?

As it is, it's far too easy to imagine analogues of Nicholas and Victor's decidedly one-sided conversations taking place, both now and in the near future, in a series of undisclosed locations, including Pakistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

Was the photograph of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that was splashed across the world press last weekend possibly taken before or after a similar exchange of views? If so, should that give any American--or any world citizen--any comfort?

It is routine knowledge that military interrogation uses a number of techniques including noise, light and sleep deprivation to psychologically disorient--or fundamentally break--detainees. What moral judgments privilege such refined psychological tortures over their physical counterparts? What ends justify these means? And what ultimately differentiates us from the alleged evil of our enemies when we employ them?

The longer Pinter's mirror hangs before us, the more likely we are to see our own reflection. Would that it were not so quickly removed.

Until O'Berski convinces rough songsmith Tom Waits to play the title role in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Jordan Smith will simply have to do. Smith personified aging dudgeon in a royal blue bathrobe, in a decidedly upbeat interpretation of Beckett's classic solo script. His character trudges the back corner of the Swain studio stage and ruminates--in the agricultural sense of the word--at length, before finally getting down to the business of listening to a tape recording he made, decades before, on his 39th birthday.

Such physical comedy had the audience laughing repeatedly the night I saw the work--a response not usually associated with Beckett. Directors usually forge Krapp as a joyless man in an existential cul-de-sac, a dry old bone for whom death will eventually come as something of an improvement.

O'Berski deserves due credit for crafting something here besides yet another Last Man on Earth. His Krapp lives just down the block from most of us--in the upstairs apartment of a shabby old house. He listens to fatuous reminiscences on a reel-to-reel tape player for a while, until sheer boredom makes him fast-forward through most of them.

In O'Berski's world, age imparts something, though not necessarily wisdom. In varying ways, sooner or later both characters say, "Thank God that's all over." One can almost hear Beckett saying in response, "You should be so lucky."

In short, each section of Accomplices--the Pinter, the two Joyces and the Beckett--has something to commend it. But in this particular combination, each dilutes the other, and their abruptness (and musical settings) disadvantages them all.

Finally, all those men out there just thirsting for self-actualization--and folks of both sexes interested in a prurient peek at male physique--are no doubt making plans for the professional touring version of the musical The Full Monty, at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium through March 16. In this tuneful tale, a handful of unemployed steelworkers (relocated from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, N.Y.) overcome economic disadvantages--and their own hang-ups about their body images--to help a friend raise money. Goodness, what could be more politically correct? Word has it that at the moment of truth, strategically placed lighting instruments make the actual Full Monty come off a lot more like The Invisible Man. On the other hand, we also hear it's a really funny show, with a musical score that's more than half-decent. So to speak. EndBlock

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