Avant-garde theater is not easy. At times, it's loud and unintelligible. Sometimes it's supposed to feel interminable. The University Theatre staging of I Can't Go On. I'll Go On. -- a collection of short plays from late in Samuel Beckett's career -- must have seemed endless to Thursday night's dwindling audience. That's just part of its obtuse charm. It will be performed through Nov. 4.
Many students read Beckett's works, but few see them performed live. Though they can be rewarding to dissect in a classroom, they're far less accessible when they unfold onstage. I get the sense that many actors give up on them mid-read, and that more don't even attempt them.
Director Patricia Boyette doesn't make Beckett any easier to stomach. Extremes are fair game in the six short plays that comprise this production. The show opens with the slow, impenetrable and near-silent "Ohio Impromptu" and closes with a repressed woman's manic screams in "Not I." Boyette increases the discomfort level by leading attendees to and from three different stages, the UW's Hemsley Theatre, Mitchell Theatre and Scene Shop.
It's no surprise that Boyette's interested in Beckett's harsher aspects. She's a longtime Beckett performer and director who's participated in University Theatre's Beckett productions since the 1990s. She and frequent collaborator Phillip Zarrilli stress physicality when performing the playwright's works. They've both worked with Billie Whitelaw, Beckett's favorite actress and the star of the action comedy Hot Fuzz, who emphasized not only the physical difficulty of performing Beckett's later works but the range of sounds the performance elicits and the effects these sounds have on the audience.
The amount of stamina needed to perform many of these plays is daunting. It's supposed to be. The MFA candidates performing "Play" and "Not I" could double as auctioneers. "Play" repeats itself, literally. Three figures are entombed in huge jars. Each shares details about a love triangle gone wrong. When a light shines on a jar, the actor inside delivers lines in a rapid-fire way, forcing the audience to listen closely. Even polished versions of "Play," like the BBC's Beckett on Film version starring Alan Rickman and Kristin Scott Thomas, are challenging to watch. Live, this piece is downright overwhelming.
The quieter pieces don't have as much of an immediate impact. Originally written for television, "Eh Joe" feels distant on stage. "Catastrophe," one of Beckett's few political plays, traditionally caricatures a cigar-smoking director clad in a fur coat. The director badgers his assistant about how to properly display a man. University Theatre's version features a white snob with a sharp suit and a fashionable cigarette case. He orders around the production's only two black actors. This staging lends an overarching narrative to what's often considered an inscrutable play. In contrast, "Come and Go" is relatable, quick and quiet. In this piece, three women affirm their loving friendship when together, then gossip about each another the instant one of them leaves.
Whether startlingly loud or unsettlingly quiet, Beckett plays involve a test of will. But this test is a worthwhile one. Though opportunities to examine Beckett's words abound, it's rare to get the opportunity to feel them, screams and all, however unintelligible or uncomfortable.