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Pathos at heart of BeckettFest

THEATER REVIEW

Tribute to existential works of Samuel Beckett traces humanness with scope.

September 25, 2004|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

Being and Nothingness may well be the twin pillars of existentialism, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed. But BeckettFest, the Rubicon Theatre Company's two-week tribute to playwright and existential poster boy Samuel Beckett, turns nothingness into somethingness, in a big way.

Featuring internationally prominent actors, directors and scholars and more than 30 events that include live performances, film screenings and lectures, the festival is unprecedented in scope for Southern California. And, judging from the performances in its opening days ("Rockaby," "Footfalls," "Happy Days" and "The Beckett Trilogy"), it's hard to top in quality.

Combined in a single hourlong program staged by longtime Beckett friend and collaborator Walter Asmus, "Rockaby" and "Footfalls" offer solo portraits of women in desperate circumstances.

In the shorter "Rockaby," a dying old woman (Susan Clark) laboriously descends into a long-neglected cellar to spend her last minutes in a rocking chair as her taped voice swirls around her, uttering live the single, pregnant word "more."

Clark's haunted face mirrors the woman's cyclic reflections and reminiscences from stages of her life as repeated short phrases such as "time she stopped" are recombined in near-geometric permutations and variations in intonation.

Beckett's text, devoid of punctuation and a marvel of economic language (starting with the title's rich associations), has been skillfully shaped by Clark and director David Payne into an emotional arc that tempers loss with merciful release at the inevitable.

"Footfalls," on the other hand, is unsparing in its harrowing contemplation of the damage wrought not by inescapable mortality but by the all-too-human choices of an oppressive parent. Linda Purl shines as May, a wraithlike figure who paces helplessly back and forth across the stage as the corrosive voice of her decrepit mother (Karyl Lynn Burns) eats away at her daughter's chances to live her own life.

Each of May's offers to help is met with "Yes -- but not yet," keeping her in a state of perpetual paralysis. Eventually, Purl takes on both voices as the mother's identity overpowers and erases the daughter's, leaving nothing but a thin strip of light.

For an evening that's more upbeat, Jenny Sullivan's staging of "Happy Days" (the Beckett version of "I Love Lucy") features Robin Pearson Rose as Winnie, a housewife who beams and chirps her way toward the grave. In Beckett's brilliant metaphor for a stifling marriage, Winnie is buried -- first waist-deep and later up to her neck -- in dirt and rocks while her grunting spouse (Rudolph Willrich) clambers unhelpfully in the background.

One of BeckettFest's crown jewels is the American premier of Conor Lovett's justly acclaimed "The Beckett Trilogy." Compiled by Lovett and his director (and wife), Judy Hegarty Lovett, this extraordinary (and free) performance turns Beckett's notoriously impenetrable novels into a seamless and surprisingly accessible -- albeit lengthy -- monologue that never falters.

The first installment, an hour's worth of the first part of "Molloy," sets a hilariously whimsical tone that the piece never entirely surrenders, even when it darkens in tone with adaptations of the more fragmentary "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable."

*

'BeckettFest'

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

Ends: Oct. 3

Contact: For event schedule and package pricing, see www.rubicontheatre.org

or call (805) 667-2900.

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