Beckett's works sometimes play out at Viva House, a shelter in the city REAL LIFE

Cast of Becket play at UMBC are, first row, Wendy Salkind, Sam McCready, and director Xerxes Mehta; second row, Walter Bilderback and Alice Robinson, and back, Seth Goldstein.

November 07, 1990|By CARL Schoettler | CARL Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

VLADIMIR: May one inquire where His Highness spent the night?

ESTRAGON: In a ditch.

VLADIMIR: (admiringly). A ditch! Where?

ESTRAGON: (without gesture). Over there.

VLADIMIR: And they didn't beat you?

:. ESTRAGON: Beat me? Certainly they beat me.

*

ESTRAGON: (violently). I'm hungry!

VLADIMIR: Do you want a carrot.

ESTRAGON: Is that all there is?

VLADIMIR: I might have a turnip.

ESTRAGON: Give me acarrot. . . .

G; -- Excerpts from "Waiting for Godot," by Samuel Beckett. People like Vladimir and Estragon, who are perhaps the two most celebrated tramps in the history of drama, turn up every day at Viva House, where they receive compassion, a sympathetic ear and on this day spinach lasagna, zucchini casserole and Mrs. Smith's apple pie, only a couple of days old.

Viva House is the Catholic Worker community that has been dispensing good works on South Monroe street for about 20 years, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, and with about equal fervor, deploring war and oppression.

Samuel Beckett, the Nobel prize-winning playwright who created Vladimir and Estragon, is one of this century's most eloquent and laconic chroniclers of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, alienation and despair. All of which are qualities that resound among the clients at Viva House like the reverberations of a pipe organ in a cathedral.

"There are people we get who speak exactly like that," says Brandon Walsh, who, with his wife, Willa Bickham, founded Viva House. He's just heard Wendy Salkind do a snippet from Beckett's play "Not I."

Salkind plays the leading "role" in "Not I" for two weekends during UMBC's "A Tribute to Samuel Beckett," which begins Friday. The Maryland Stage Company, the professional theater company based at UMBC, will donate to Viva House the proceeds from "Not I" and two other short Beckett plays.

The plays, including "Rockaby" and "Ohio Impromptu," will b given at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and Nov. 14 to 17 at the UMBC Theater. This Saturday, a symposium following the plays will bring three Beckett scholars to the theater: Ruby Cohn, a renowned Beckett commentator; Peter Gidal, a Beckett theorist and filmmaker from London; and Angela Moorjani, an associate professor of French at UMBC who has written widely on Beckett.

Wendy Salkind's part in "Not I" is one of the most stripped-down in Beckett's stark canon. In "Not I" Beckett has reduced drama to a voice and a silent auditor who makes only the slightest gestures. Only Salkind's mouth is visible, blurting forth a rushing, staccato stream of words that become her life story.

To Bickham, co-founder of Viva House, Salkind sounds like client. "That part you did," Bickham tells the actress, "I've heard that before."

Bickham and her husband thought Viva House might be more or less temporary when they first opened their doors in the 1960s. Their work now seems more like "Waiting for Godot."

Bickham remembers one woman who memorized all the names and numbers in the Department of Education phone directory. jTC She'd recite them at odd moments. "For fifteen minutes at a time," Bickham says. "And with great inflection."

The woman once testified at a congressional hearing on homelessness and drifted off into her recitation of names and numbers from the department's directory.

"So," says Walsh, Bickham's husband, "in the Congressional Record you have all of a sudden these phone numbers from the Baltimore City Education Department."

Which sounds exactly like something from Beckett.

But Beckett writes not only about people without a voice in the economy, says Salkind, but about all people who have no voice.

"He's about us," says Sam McCready, an actor with a lovely Irish rhythm to his speech. He is the Reader in "Ohio Impromptu" at UMBC.

"We come to drama expecting the play to be about people like us, people with extraordinary problems," says McCready. "We expect them to be versions of people we've known.

"Beckett's not about people. He's about what's going on in each of our minds: the gabbling that's going on inside."

"Gabbling," he says, is the Irish word for what the character in "Not I" does.

McCready's from Belfast in Northern Ireland and once lived over a cricket pitch where Beckett had taught a college team. He and Salkind; Julie Franz, the stage manager; and Xerxes Mehta, who directing the plays, have come to Viva House for dinner and to chat a bit about Beckett.

Mehta, Salkind and McCready teach theater at UMBC; Julie Franz is a third-year student in the theater department. Franz, who had known the owners of Viva House and their work, suggested Viva House when the company decided to donate their proceeds to a community dealing with the homeless and the hungry.

"They invite into their home people rejected by society, isolated from society," Franz says. "Their commitment is not limited by movement or fad. They're committed daily."

Walsh and Bickham are serving Mrs. Smith's apple pie when Xerxes Mehta says that Beckett's plays are thrilling stuff to work on.

"Because you're dealing with a writer who is pushing his medium to the limit," Mehta says. "For a director that's thrilling."

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