Friday, June 5, 2009


Life has a way of falling into patterns sometimes. So, just as a couple of months ago I saw a French-language play inspired by Hamlet at the school where a friend of mine teaches, followed by a minimalist one-man show at the Cutting Ball Theater... well, this week, that happened again.

The French play was called Rêver peut-être, which means, of course, Perchance To Dream. It was written by Jean-Claude Grumberg. Here is my translation of the blurb:
The story of a sleeper in pajamas who wanders onto a stage peopled with Shakespearean characters. During the day, Gérald B. rehearses the role of Hamlet. And at night, like all of us, he sinks into the arms of Morpheus. A highly criminal activity, according to the female gendarme who turns up in his bedroom one morning. Called before a judge, the actor is accused of having committed several murders in his dreams. Charged with "inhumanity," he finds himself commanded by his lawyer to produce, in his defense, some dreams filled with love for his fellow man. Clinging to his bed, Gérald B. undergoes a voyage to the deepest parts of his unconscious...
This premise is so very Continental, isn't it? The idea of the gendarmerie policing Gérald's dreams is Kafkaesque, and I think Europeans have always been much more fascinated with dreams/psychoanalysis/the unconscious than Americans have. It was in my theater class in Paris that I first learned the word "oneiric" (or oneirique), in that case referring to the dream-logic employed by Pirandello--and a lot of major European art movements (Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism) have an oneiric quality, but this form is rarer in English and American drama.

The actors in this production were all teachers at the lycée, and it seems like half the fun, for the audience, was the chance to see their teachers cut loose. One woman wore a miniskirt, another belly-danced, and the guy who directed the play also performed the role of the judge, in fishnet stockings, short-shorts, and makeup that made his face look like Jean Cocteau had sketched it. (Cocteau: another master of the oneiric.)

I can't say I totally got the play, though. My French basically suffices for me to understand the characters' words, sentences, and conversations, though I missed a few punchlines that had everyone else in the theater roaring. But on the larger level of understanding why the characters were having these conversations, why this scene followed that scene, why the play ended when it did, I was less certain. The play utilizes dream logic, after all, and when it's dream-logic in a language that isn't your native tongue, it can get difficult. (Don't they say that the moment you're become truly fluent in a language is when you start dreaming in it? And I've had dreams that include French phrases, but never a complete dream in French.) I'm not used to being so bewildered by the structure of a play. Indeed, three or four years ago I discovered I'd begun to watch plays "like a playwright," that is, with a hyper-awareness of their underlying construction and the tricks-of-the-trade used by the playwright. But I'm still uncertain what tricks Grumberg used; perhaps I should try to locate a copy of the script...

A few days after that, at five p.m. last Sunday, I went to the Exit Theater to catch a production of Krapp's Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett. I thought it was pretty nifty, how they scheduled this short play at an unorthodox time: you could be downtown shopping or whatever, pop over to the theatre, spend forty-five minutes seeing one of Beckett's major works, and when you left it would hardly even be time for dinner. (I also liked how this saved me from having to be in the Tenderloin after dark. There's a reason that the other two times I have seen a show in this neighborhood, I have been accompanied by tall men!) On the other hand, I'm not sure this is really the best way to absorb Beckett--should he really be consumed so quickly, sandwiched between more mundane or frivolous activities? Ah, well. Such is modern life.

There was a woman of about sixty at Krapp's Last Tape, pushing an older and very frail woman in a wheelchair. After the play finished, I overheard her say to her companion, "I saw this play when I was in my twenties. I knew it would be interesting to revisit it again now. Because I think it bewildered me, when I first saw it. How could it not?"

As a young twenty-something myself, I know that I probably won't get as much out of this play as an older person will, since it's all about aging and memory and regret... But because I've kept a diary since I was fourteen, I can understand how it feels to revisit the person you once were and think "How could I have ever thought this?" Or "How could I be so naive?" Or "I'd forgotten all about that--why did it seem so important at the time?"

And I could have sat in a bookstore and read Krapp's Last Tape in about fifteen minutes, but I know it wouldn't have had the same impact. Yes, it's a stripped-down little piece, but it's entirely theatrical, because every word and gesture counts. My heart ached for Krapp every time he uncorked his liquor bottle and took a swig. And mind you, this happens when Krapp is offstage, so it's not even anything in the actor's performance that created this effect--just that lonely, hollow pop as the bottle is uncorked hit me like a shot. And at the end, when, as he listened to his younger self talk about going boating with a beautiful woman and burying his face in her breasts, he cradled his old reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the two spools of it were like a poor mechanical echo of the shape of the woman's breasts--I would not have seen this beautiful image if I had only read the play.

As a writer, minimalism does not come naturally to me. But plays like Krapp's Last Tape make me wish that it did.

Photo: Paul Gerrior as Krapp. Image from the Cutting Ball Theater.

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