Terse plays examine man's existence

November 14, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

The plays of Samuel Beckett -- particularly his later works -- are terse to the point of being cryptic.

Here's a synopsis of each of the three short works being presented by UMBC's Maryland Stage Company under the joint title "A Tribute to Samuel Beckett": In "Not I," a woman's disembodied mouth spews out a monologue to a darkly cloaked figure who never speaks; in "Ohio Impromptu," two men with identical long white hair sit at a table where one slowly reads a monotonous-sounding book; in "Rockaby," an old woman rocks in a rocking chair to the rhythm of her repetitiously broadcast thoughts.

Obtuse as these works may sound, Beckett -- who died almost a year ago -- was not trying to bewilder the audience. On the contrary, he was attempting to penetrate the basic questions of existence. Why are we here? Can we ever connect? What does it all mean? And, how will it end?

Directed by Xerxes Mehta, artistic director of the Maryland Stage Company, the resident professional troupe at UMBC, these productions are stark and loyal to Beckett's intentions. And "Not I" is given a virtuoso performance by UMBC associate professor Wendy Salkind.

All that is visible of Ms. Salkind on the otherwise pitch-black stage is her illuminated red mouth, frantically emitting a lifetime of talk, the last testament of a woman who, until now, has lived a nearly speechless existence. Despite screams, wild laughter and virtually breathless delivery, Ms. Salkind expressively enunciates each rapid-fire word.

"Ohio Impromptu," so named because it was written for a Beckett symposium at Ohio State University in 1981, displays the greatest degree of human interaction. Sam McCready, identified simply as "Reader," ploddingly reads a book aloud to "Listener," played by fellow faculty member Walter Bilderback. Garbed in matching white wigs and black coats, they might be twins.

Despite an overriding sense of melancholy, this scene is the most hopeful of the evening. For one thing, the two men raise their heads

in the end, in contrast to the conclusions of the other works. Furthermore, the fact that they look alike suggests they have achieved the type of connection for which many of Beckett's other characters strive. (This impression is curiously undercut, however, when, contrary to Beckett's instructions, Mr. McCready does not face Mr. Bilderback.)

"Rockaby," which area theatergoers had a chance to see at Center Stage last season, depicts a less satisfying existence. The woman in the rocking chair, played by associate professor Alice Robinson, has apparently spent a lifetime futilely peering out her window in hopes of seeing "another like herself." Ms. Robinson has the proper decayed Dickensian look, but her recorded voice sounds too youthful -- almost joyous -- to sum up this lonely woman's unrequited yearning.

"A Tribute to Samuel Beckett" runs just over an hour, but well before that hour is up you realize that although the characters are speaking in third person, they are describing themselves -- and perhaps us.

The cast numbers only five, but Lewis Shaw's chiaroscuro lighting plays so important a role, it deserves to be listed among them.

"A Tribute to Samuel Beckett" continues through Saturday at the UMBC Theatre; call 455-2476.

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