'Becketteers' are a hit in France In Strasbourg: Maryland Stage Company, one of two American troupes chosen to work at Beckett festival, produces three difficult works by the Irish playwright.

April 21, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

For one glorious week this month, they were Becketteers.

Well, not entirely glorious.

When the Maryland Stage Company arrived in Strasbourg, France, as one of only two American theater troupes invited to perform at the prestigious International Samuel Beckett Symposium and Festival, the luggage containing their props -- including three crucial wigs -- did not arrive with them.

Frantic, they persuaded their Washington wig maker to create duplicates and express-ship them, only to have Air France retrieve the lost luggage before the new wigs arrived.

On the morning of the first performance, the Strasbourg theater's soundboard failed. Actor Michael Stebbins vividly recalls the international communications gap that resulted when the Maryland Stage Company's English-speaking production manager tried to talk to the French-speaking theater liaison through the festival's translator, who was German. The difficulty of being understood was almost Beckettesque.

"Everything that could go wrong did," says Xerxes Mehta, artistic director of the Maryland Stage Company, which he founded in 1987 as the resident professional troupe of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

But, adds Mehta, who also directed the Beckett production, "We survived all of that, and once we opened, things went well. We had no idea what the reaction to the work would be, and the reaction was tremendous."

Audiences were impressed by the Maryland Stage Company's performance, according to Marek Kedzierski, the Strasbourg-based festival organizer. The symposium, held the month the late playwright would have celebrated his 90th birthday, attracted 80 scholars from around the world. Several had known Beckett, who died in 1989 at age 83. Few, however, had ever seen a live performance by the Maryland Stage Company.

"Normally on such occasions, theaters are famous or have stars or people who had something to do with Beckett personally, and in this case we had a program of plays performed by a company that was fresher," Kedzierski said. "And that was always underlined in conversations afterward."

Mehta, a published Beckett scholar, agrees.

"Much of the Beckett scholarship is based on productions that are 20 or 30 years old," he says. "The sense that those productions cannot be improved on is something we don't believe. It was important for that group of people to see there are new performers coming up, taking new approaches to the plays. Some were open enough to admit that."

The Maryland Stage Company's participation came about largely at the suggestion of Robert Scanlan, president of the Samuel Beckett Society and literary director of Boston's American Repertory Theater, the other American company at the festival.

Scanlan, who coined the term "Becketteers" and worked closely with Beckett in the last decade of his life, describes the UMBC company's inclusion as a "big deal," explaining:

"Beckett circles like this tend to gather at large international occasions. Each one has become a benchmark of future Beckett research and general ideas and trends. So, they become important gatherings, and this is one of the important ones."

Both his American Repertory Theater production (of three Beckett television plays) and that of the Maryland Stage Company "were wonderfully received," Scanlan says, using the adjectives "flawless, beautiful and extraordinary" to describe the Maryland production.

That production consisted of two short Beckett plays the Maryland Stage Company first produced in 1990 -- "Not I" and "Ohio Impromptu" -- plus a third, "That Time." Besides being from Beckett's late period -- the 1970s and 1980s -- the three plays represent what Mehta describes as "a progression from faster to slower, outward to inward."

In "Not I" -- a 12-minute, one-woman tour de force performed by UMBC theater department chairwoman Wendy Salkind -- an old woman who has barely spoken for most of her life suddenly erupts in logorrhea. All we see of her, however, is her disembodied mouth.

In "That Time," performed by UMBC associate professor Sam McCready, a man's head is suspended 10 feet above the stage, with hair outspread, "as if seen from above," as Beckett's stage directions indicate. Three recorded voices -- all McCready's -- speak to him about different periods from his past.

In "Ohio Impromptu," two identical-looking, white-haired men are seated at a table where one (McCready) reads to the other (Stebbins) about a "dear name," again from the past.

There is an innate simplicity in the look of these plays. But they examine enormous subjects -- nothing short of the nature of life and suffering -- and they are anything but simple to perform.

'Claustrophobic challenge'

Mehta calls "Not I," in particular, "the most difficult thing I know of in all of theater for an actress to do."

The stage directions for this piece call for the mouth to be "about eight feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below." Ideally, the rest of the face is totally invisible.

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