Everything started in the dark.
When the icy blue lights came up, a tall, 50s-ish male sculptural figure, wrapped in a generous black drape, with a shaggy moustache, his eyes closed, bare feet, stood on a black cube at center stage.
To the left stood a woman in a dark dress, over which she wore a white lab coat. Seated near her was a man dressed like one’s image of a golden-age movie director, chain-smoking.
The three, known only as the Protagonist (on the pedestal), played with near-exsanguinated stoicism by Kevin Collins; the Assistant, played with blank-face, expressionless directness by Ann Elizabeth “Biz” Lyon; and the Director, played with bureaucratic authority by Tyler Gregory, are the cast of the great Irish playwright, novelist, poet, about-everything-else Samuel Beckett’s 1982 minimalist play “Catastrophe.”
Written in French for A.I.D.A (Association Internationale de Défense des Artistes), the play was dedicated to the then-imprisoned Czech reformer, playwright and poet, Václav Havel.
It is minimalist theater. One might even say “conceptual” theater, stripped to the most basic set elements: the cube and a chair for the Director, with a limited number of words spoken.
The Director sits in his chair smoking a cigarette that keeps going out, in response to which he issues the directive to the Assistant, “light.”
He also instructs the Assistant to remove the drape; tilt the figure’s head down; raise the head up a little, a little more; unclasp his fists, then lace the fingers together in front of his chest; a little higher, higher, tilt his head up a little.
When the black drape is removed, the figure is wearing nothing but a long-sleeved gray Henley and slightly darker gray sweat pants.
The Assistant gives short responses. “He’s shivering,” she comments, after instructions to open the neck of the Protagonist’s shirt and push up the legs of the figure’s gray sweat pants to above his knees. Unhappy, the Director wants the figure’s skin to be whiter.
The intent of this miniature drama, is to capture the dehumanization of totalitarianism and communism, under which the Czech people suffered at the time the play was written, and to which Stalin and his followers had subjected the Russian people. (Just read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s “1973 The Gulag Archipelago”)
To contemporary audiences, it also has the chilling effect of applying to women in a society in which beauty is harshly judged against an objectified standard, not all that different from the Protagonist.
For more than half of “Catastrophe” the Director is off stage. One only hears his voice and the orders he directs, a point that can’t be missed regarding just who it is that determines what will be what.
“Catastrophe” and the two other Beckett plays that accompany it, are the production of Knoxford Drama (an intentional pun on Oxford) and its three founding partners: Dennis E. Perkins, who directed the plays and who is academy director of the Knoxville Children’s Theatre; Zack Allen, who also works at KCT and a long-time local theater veteran; and Caroline King, well-known around town for directing, costuming, producing and performing in her own productions.
Next came “Come and Go,” widely considered Beckett’s most perfect play. It consists of nothing more than three women, sitting on a bench, each, in turn, walking away from the other two and standing with her back to the others while they whisper about her.
Perfectly played by Lyon, as Ru; Caroline King, as Flo; and Carrie Thompson, as Vi, the three are dressed in matching style hats of different colors and different colored trench coats.
They sit, expressionless, until one rises and walks away, the invitation for the others to whisper gossip about her. The entire dialogue of the play consists of 121 (intentional palindrome) words that are woven together and repeated in 3 segments of 7 lines each.
Near the end, as the three join hands, Vi says, “May we not speak of the old days; of what came after. Shall we hold hands in the old way.”
It’s a stark reminder of how alone one can be, even in a group of friends.
The third play, “Footfalls,” is performed by an actor one sees and a second one whose voice is only heard.
Caroline King effectively plays May, a ghostly character who paces on a wood platform, moving exactly nine steps before turning and going exactly nine steps back.
Her mother, one only hears, is voiced by Carrie Thompson. In the course of the brief play, one learns that she is 89 and bed-ridden. Through brief exchanges, May asks if her mother would like to be turned to change her position, to which her mother replies that it’s not time; we hear that her mother can count the steps; and that May is likely in her 40s. Is the mother entirely is May’s mind, or is the ghost of May a creature of the mother’s imagination?
The play is in four sections, with the sound of a bell dividing them and the light dimmer each time. There is musical, metronomic, rhythm to the steps. A poetic quality to May’s soft-spoken monolog at the end, which was almost drowned out by unintentional John Cage-like ambient music made by the passing traffic on Central Street.
This is not joyful theater, by any stretch of the imagination. But challenging, intellectually demanding plays like this are at the very heart of the role theater has played since the ancient Greeks invented the form. The function of theater has always been to observe and comment on the society that swirls around it.
These excellent, bare-bones productions are certain to swirl in your head for a while.
The productions play again tonight and January 18, 19 and 20 at The Hive, 854 N. Central Street, next door to Magpie’s Bakery. The performances begin at 7 p.m.