Last night at around 7:45 about thirty of us, mostly young and middle-aged artists, made our way up to the tenth floor of the massive loft building at 475 Kent Avenue on the corner of South 11th Street. We were there for the second performance of Wallabout Oyster Theatre‘s first production, Beckett’s 1958 short Krapp’s Last Tape and a reading of his final novella Worstward Ho (1983). The space, an unconventional theater even by Williamsburg standards, took up almost all of Simon Lee‘s home and studio, with its spectacular views out over the Navy Yard towards Lower Manhattan. In the performance space, seats of various provenance—folding chairs, old leather theater seats, straw bottom kitchen chairs—were arrayed in four rows on risers, a tight but quite comfortable fit.
The first performance, Krapp’s Last Tape (directed by Algis Kizys), begins with a sly gesture, as two stage assistants make what look like final preparations, one seemingly verifying that all the props are in place on the desk that sits in the center of the space, the other bringing out a giant white screen, perhaps the final piece of the sparse set. “Does this go here?” “No.” And they walk back out, Krapp (Nesbitt Blaisdell) now sitting perfectly still in a desk chair that was empty two seconds ago. Blaisdell sits for a moment apprehending the scene, perhaps almost as surprised as us to be here. He wears black pants and a black vest, a white shirt and leather boots. He’s got white makeup on most of his face, and a touch of red on his nose, a look that has been in and out of favor at various times in the piece’s production history. Blaisdell keeps the clowning to a minimum, though the extreme poise with which every movement is executed has a certain comic weight in exaggerated moments, like during the peeling and eating of a banana.
For the first ten, entirely wordless minutes the performance is phenomenal, and every gesture and movement is so deliberate that we watch as if an old man had never pulled a pocket watch from his vest before. He has a similar newborn kind of fascination with things, repeating the word “spool” as he searches among his old tapes, as though noticing its aural pleasantness for the first time. Eventually the piece settles into a kind of rhythm, with Krapp listening to a tape he recorded on his 39th birthday, as he prepares to do the same 30 years later. He edits his own history, skipping over passages, repeating one about a romantic encounter several times. When he finally records the new tape, he laughs at the ridiculous tone of his younger self. He ends just as he began, sitting at his desk looking a little puzzled, and very much alone.
We adjourn for intermission, during which oysters, cheese and wine are served from Simon’s kitchen; he isn’t there, but his partner in Rufus Corporation, Eve Sussman, whose studio is directly below on the ninth floor, is running things. The woman sitting behind me tells the two men who sat next to her: “That was so random!” Later, not surprisingly, she’ll say: “Now that was random; it made the first piece seem much more coherent.”
When we return into the performance space the desk is gone, and a ceiling-to-floor curtain has been half-opened, revealing a partial view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, and the Financial District. Now a glowing blue square hangs above the center of the space as do wiry sculptures by Jacques Roch, casting line drawing-like shadows onto the various screens hung about the space as they’re rotated and lit from different angles. Near the front of the room stands a lectern, where Christopher Yeatman comes to read Worstward Ho, one of Becket’s final pieces. It’s a difficult piece to read aloud, although perhaps even harder to read silently. One typical passage goes like so: “Unchanged? Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.”
There are fragments of a narrative that seem to emerge briefly from this flow of words before becoming submerged once again, something involving a man and a boy, and the cycle of life, maybe. Yeatman, thankfully, gives it all a very pronounced inflection, as though he were reading normal sentences. A more deadpan delivery really would have deadened the text. One instinctively tries to grasp after meaning, to follow the passages that seem to be leading somewhere, but often the words become little more than sounds, and quite pleasant ones at that, arranged with a poetic sensibility full of rhythms and internal rhymes strung together almost as if by accident.
When the performance ends we go for more cheese and wine, and Simon Lee has come home. He tells me they had originally planned to include a third Beckett piece. “I was going to perform Breath,” a 25-second play in which a birthcry comes from an empty, garbage-strewn stage, “on the roof of the building nextdoor. I was going to be under a pile of trash, and we’d have lights from here shining onto the rooftop, with a live video feed to a screen in the studio.” I ask if he wants to do more theater in his space. “Well, we did this on a bit of a whim,” he says, “but the seats and everything are there now, so I’d like to do it again.” He continues, “We don’t have anything more planned right now, but we’re definitely taking proposals.”
Performances of Krapp’s Last Tape and Worstward Ho continue at 475 Kent Ave through Saturday, attendance is free with an RSVP, though I was told last night that all the seats are taken for the remaining performances.