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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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The uses of despair
The Beckett Project finds the poetry in grief and loss

University Theatre opens the season with The Beckett Project, a group of four remarkable one-act plays by Samuel Beckett (playing through Sept. 23 at Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre). Best-known forWaiting for Godot, the Irish playwright reflected the sense of intellectual despair and meaninglessness that followed World War II. Stylistically enigmatic and spare, these seldom-performed short plays about loss, isolation, grief and failure are surprisingly moving, tender and poetic.

Traditional theater is all about interaction, dialogue and ' conventionally ' a story with a beginning, middle and end. This theater is not. A summary of plots ' which would be an injustice ' could read like this. 'Ohio Impromptu': Sitting at a table, a robed Reader reads and a robed Listener listens. Perhaps they are the same person? 'Not I': A disembodied mouth recalls, with breathless speed, a morning in April when perhaps a rape took place. A robed figure stands by. 'Act Without Words': A mime play about a man alone in a desert frustrated beyond his endurance by an unseen whistling presence. 'Rockaby': An automatic rocking chair rocks an old woman who listens to a recording of her own voice repeating, among other things, her wish that a face might appear in the window across the way.

The performance is beautifully realized by the Llanarth Group, who have been staging The Beckett Project worldwide for a decade. Director/performers Phillip Zarrilli and Patricia Boyette ' past and present faculty at the UW Theater and Drama Department ' have internalized the constraints Beckett placed on his actors. (He once criticized a performance as having 'too much color' and urged his actors to speak in a monotone.)

When these characters speak, in their repetitive, musical and often dreamlike way, we hear fragments of narrative that oddly become sufficient, and glacial slowness acquires an acutely intense effect.

Zarrilli and Boyette practice meditation and breathing techniques to create the stamina and control that inform their disciplined performances. Boyette's 'mouth' spews endless, tumbled sentences interspersed with crazed chuckles and a few screams ' all with perfect diction and seemingly without drawing a breath. As Zarrilli's man in the desert futilely grasps at the means to sustain life, he gradually draws all the tension of the scene into his own body, so that when he falls to the ground it is more than a physical fall.

A serious, challenging, stimulating evening of theater.

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