Beckett: The Musical?

When he was asked why he made a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, Gus Van Sant replied, “So that no one else would have to.”  The same could be said of Sounding Beckett, a bizarre failure of an experiment that nevertheless justifies its existence.  Six composers, working with three short plays from Samuel Beckett’s “ghost period,” have written music reacting to those plays—“Footfalls,” “Ohio Impromptu,” and “Catastrophe” are performed and then followed by orchestral codas (three of the six pieces are played on alternating nights).

It is unlikely that Beckett, who was adamant about complete fidelity to his scripts, would have appreciated these musical interruptions.  Of course, that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they do virtually nothing to illuminate his work, and instead serve as self-indulgent riffs audaciously juxtaposed with work by one of the greatest playwrights of twentieth century theater.  There is, however, one exception: at the beginning of Laura Schwendinger’s companion piece to “Footfalls,” a woman blows into a flute, but we hear the air more than the notes.  Beside her, string players lightly rub their instruments—and indeed, if Beckett had been a composer, this might be the kind of work he would produce.  For in his plays, one word acts as the ghost of twenty, just as here, it is not music that is being performed so much as the suggestion of music.

And the three plays themselves are performed powerfully.  The audience is flooded with darkness and the cast is minimally lit as we sit back in our seats and listen to these tragi-comic scenes that feel like Beckettian versions of bedtime stories.  In “Footfalls,” a middle-aged woman (Holly Twyford) compulsively paces as the sound of her mother’s voice (Kathleen Chalfant) dominates the stage; in “Ohio Impromptu,” two long-haired, identical-looking old men (Ted van Griethuysen, Philip Goodwin) sit at a table, one of them reading a “sad tale” until “Nothing is left to tell”; and in “Catastrophe,” a dictatorial director (Mr. Goodwin) constantly adjusts a statue-like man (Mr. van Griethuysen) who stands, shivering, as the director and his assistant (Ms. Twyford) admire their work.  Mr. Goodwin, with slight jowls, a black turtleneck, and thick-framed glasses resembles a sinister Peter Bogdanovich.

On the page, the wily Irishman can sometimes read as dense (there are lots of stage directions), so it is always a pleasure to see his lesser-known works in fluid performance.  If the music detracts from the experience, it is a shame, but at least we have learned something: Beckett, perhaps more than any other, should not be sounded.

Sounding Beckett runs through September 23rd at the Classic Stage Company.  136 E. 13th Street  New York, NY.

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Aaron Botwick

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