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THEATER REVIEW

Channeling Beckett

At UCLA Live's fest, the writer's words are an audible feast, even in works meant to be seen but not heard.

November 10, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

One could hardly come up with a better human instrument to intone the sonorous waves of Samuel Beckett's blasphemous comic prose than Conor Lovett. Lean, unassumingly masculine and blessed with a voice like a cello, the Irish actor exudes a gentle humanity that can recede at will into an existential blankness.

Lovett's finesse is on full display in "Access All Beckett: Five Dramatic Recitals of Prose and One Late Drama," a double bill from the Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland. The program, which opened Tuesday night at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, will continue a short run this weekend as part of the "Samuel Beckett Centenary Celebration" presented by UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival.

In "The Beckett Trilogy," the first of the two parts, Lovett sets for himself the challenge of single-handedly delivering large passages of "Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable," the trio of novels that represent the author's most groundbreaking achievement in the form.

The feat is staggering in terms of memory alone. Swathed in a stark light on a darkened bare set, Lovett hypnotically calls up nearly three hours of text, without notes, costars or even clear narrative signposts.

For those unfamiliar with the trilogy's peculiar literary graces, the writing represents modernism at its most dauntingly fluid. A succession of narrators, one more physically incapacitated than the next, assumes the task of filling a fictional void with hilariously off-color tales that increasingly become a meditation on the act of writing itself.

As always with Beckett, the quandary of artistic creation is analogous to the quandary of living. The question at the heart of the mystery is as practically simple as it is philosophically profound: How does one pass the time, which of course will mercilessly pass anyway, as the author is the first to remind?

The trilogy wasn't intended to be staged, but there's something about its linguistic vigor and scabrous wit (written originally in French, it was translated into English under Beckett's supervision) that makes it a perversely tempting proposition.

Lovett serves as a kind of medium for the words, summoning a slightly different persona for each narrator. For "Molloy," that's part genteel tramp, part stand-up absurdist comedian. For "Malone Dies," it's a storyteller lost in some nether region between memory and fantasy. And for "The Unnamable," it's an otherworldly presence, a voice from the fictional beyond.

The "Molloy" sections are the most successfully self-contained, allowing us to lose ourselves in the escapades of a hobbled vagrant with a fussy vocabulary and an oddly philosophical turn of mind. We hear about his bedridden, flickeringly conscious mother, who knows him by his smell though not his name, about his run-ins with the police as he clumsily pedals his bike in defiance of civic ordinances and about his unfortunate accident involving a woman's poor old dog. Needless to say, respect for family feeling, law and order, and helpless animals is honored neither in the breach nor in the observance.

The pleasures of the recited text are largely verbal. Idiomatic color sustains the narrative rhythm in the absence of traditional plot. Beckett gets a lot of comedic mileage from the discrepancy between the nature of the debased shenanigans and the calmly elevated register in which they are recounted. Aphorisms, when they come, tend to emerge from the deepest muck.

Lovett's selections provide only a hint of the overall structure of the trilogy. It would be impossible to do it justice given the time limitations of theatrical performance, which are already being stretched past the breaking point. The experience is an enticement to, not a substitute for, reading the work on your own. Lovett even saves the famous last line ("I can't go on, I'll go on") for your private communion.

The high point of the second bill is actress Ally Ni Chiarain's rendering of Beckett's short prose piece "Enough," about a woman recalling her attachment to an older man. The mood is quasi-romantic, a recollection of a bygone paradise whose details are anything but idyllic.

With her grave beauty and untamed mane, Ni Chiarain stands beside an austere bench holding a book in her hand. Her clenched posture would suit a churchgoer, yet there's something heartbreakingly soft in her eyes. If it's a religious experience she's having, it has something to do with love and the cracks it exposes in the faulty makeup of the universe -- which must be enough for all of us even if the pockets of silence the character occasionally falls into suggest otherwise.

The least effective offering of the two programs is "A Piece of Monologue," ironic given that it's the only genuine drama in the lineup. Lovett, donning a white wig and nightgown, performs it in a ghostly light.

Composed of quintessential Beckettian shards ("Birth was the death of him," "No such thing as whole"), it isn't so much haunting as indistinct -- a theatrical footnote probably more fascinating to scholars than to audiences.

The prose piece "Texts for Nothing" offers more freedom for Lovett to show his virtuosity as an interpreter. Less memorable than the trilogy, it nonetheless reveals the "unbroken flow of words and tears" that Beckett's compulsive chatterboxes provide as they skirt the abyss.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

`Access All Beckett'

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA

What and when: "Three

Works by Beckett" at 8 tonight; "The Beckett Trilogy" at 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Price: $28 and $40

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org

Running time: "Three Works," 2 hours, 10 minutes; "Trilogy," 3 hours, 20 minutes

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