Director Xerxes Mehta has written that he considers Samuel Beckett's late plays "ghost-plays, hauntings." In keeping with this, there is a profound spookiness to the three short pieces he has mounted for the Maryland Stage Company, the professional company in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
In Mehta's exacting production, the lighting, exquisitely designed by Terry Cobb, is as much a character as the actors. All three plays begin with the theater shrouded in darkness so deep it goes beyond black to bleak. When light finally comes up - whether on three heads atop giant urns in "Play," or on a disembodied death mask-like face in "That Time," or on two identical seated figures in "Ohio Impromptu" - it is intense and unforgiving.
The actors appear before us like exhibits of despair, caught in the interrogation-style glare of piercing white light. The eerie effect combines minimalism with ritualistic purity, an effect reinforced by Beckett's reliance on repetition and Mehta's slow, deliberate pacing. This is not merely theater stripped bare, but souls stripped bare.
Mehta, who is president-elect of the Samuel Beckett Society as well as artistic director of the Maryland Stage Company, has been honing his skills as a Beckett interpreter for some time. The company presented its first evening of short Beckett works in 1990. Four years ago, its production of "Not I," "That Time" and "Ohio Impromptu" traveled to the international Beckett symposium in Strasbourg, France. The current production was part of last month's international symposium in Berlin.
"Play," the only work new to the company, is actually the oldest, written in 1962-63. Mehta feels, however, that this piece established the course of Beckett's subsequent plays, which often focus on a nearly stationary speaker and/or listener, isolated in light. Displaying the evening's sole bursts of humor, "Play" is a good icebreaker, gently preparing the audience for the unrelenting harshness of the subsequent pieces.
With only their heads visible, Wendy Salkind, Bill Largess and Peggy Yates portray a wife, husband and mistress whose contentiousness persists even after their remains have been consigned to funerary urns. In a synchronized tour de force, Cobb's rapid-fire spotlights illuminate each actor's head only when he or she speaks, emphasizing the sense of alienation. The imagery is further enhanced by designer Elena Zlotescu's unearthly makeup, which resembles a coating of cracked clay, similar in texture to the urns.
Unable to form honest connections in life, the characters in "Play" are permanently disconnected in death. Though side by side, they are totally unaware of each other.
Death and the futility of connecting - with the past or other people - are also themes of the evening's two remaining works. In "That Time," Sam McCready's head appears to float at a fixed point above the stage. His wild hair forms a spiky aureola around his ghoulish face, which seems to glow from within. Immobile except for occasional deep breaths, he listens to his own recorded voice from three different stages of his past, attempting to recall lost or fading moments.
McCready returns in "Ohio Impromptu," reading a cryptic tale about a message from a departed "dear" one. His face almost hidden under a long white wig, he reads to an identically clad listener (Largess), who reacts solely by rapping the table with his fist - softly, insistently or angrily.
Although all three works are imbued with feelings of despondency and loss, a brief ray of hope pierces the pessimism at the end of "That Time" when McCready smiles, and "Ohio Impromptu," when the two actors - who may represent the same person - face each other for the first time. Even so, this is a chilling evening, presented with stark, uncompromising proficiency.
Show times at the UMBC Theatre, 5401 Wilkens Ave., are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-455-2476.
`Opal' needs polishing
Playwright John Patrick wrote five comedies about a lovable junk dealer named Opal Kronkie, and veteran Arena Players actress Verna Day has now appeared in all of them. She's currently wearing Opal's tattered shoes in "Opal's Husband," Arena's season opener.
Although Patrick won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, "The Teahouse of the August Moon," his Opal plays are little more than sitcoms. Director Ben Prestbury has his cast adopt the type of broad approach suitable to such silly fare - in this case, an account of an elderly gentleman looking for a wife to take him away from the nursing home and out of the clutches of a money-grubbing daughter and son-in-law.
On opening night, however, much of the comedy was sacrificed to missed lines and entrances. The actors' physical antics still registered with the audience, but the production as a whole needs to be much smoother before this Opal can be considered even a semi-precious gem.