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White Nights/Not I/Krapp's Last Tape/Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll

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WHITE NIGHTS and NOT I

Cascando Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

KRAPP'S LAST TAPE

Carpe Noctem Productions

at Transient Theatre

SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL

Carpe Noctem Productions

at Transient Theatre

If there's one playwright whose work can't transcend a half-baked performance, it's Samuel Beckett. There are authors whose words and visual images can overpower the flaws in most any production, but if not performed to perfection Beckett's dreary minimalism quickly becomes repetitive and dull. Such is the case with two of his works now onstage as part of two double bills. In both theaters the other, lesser work far outclasses the Beckett.

For no apparent reason Cascando Productions revises the inspired gimmickry of Beckett's Not I, ignoring the playwright's carefully worded instructions. The 15-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by a woman named Mouth describes a life so miserable that the speaker must talk about herself in the third person, separating herself from the words that rattle on senselessly. To achieve the appropriate disorienting effect, Beckett calls for only the mouth of Mouth to be illuminated and for her speech to be observed by a passive "auditor" dressed in black from head to foot. (God? The Devil? Johnny Cash?)

Rather than follow Beckett's words faithfully, director Dan Ward seats Mouth (Chiara Lucia Mangiameli) center stage, illuminates her entire body dimly, and chucks the auditor. Why? Don't know. But the changes seem to indicate a lack of understanding of the work. Rather than separating Mouth's current state of semiconsciousness from the fragmented memories of her past, Ward's direction blurs Beckett's intention, making Mouth seem less anonymous and more a blithering madwoman en route to an asylum.

Cascando does much better with Ward's original adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevski's novella White Nights. Though at times Ward's language is stiff and stilted, he carries off this sad, ironic tale of a tortured Russian intellectual who falls madly in love with the jilted Nastenka, who's waiting impatiently for her grandmother's handsome former lodger to return to Saint Petersburg and marry her. Needless to say, the match between the dreamer and Nastenka is doomed--the moment she declares her love for him, her grandmother's lodger returns. The dreamer, who knew the beauty and reality of love for just a few seconds, must return to his world of impossible fantasies.

Ward's simple, unencumbered direction successfully turns the spare basement of Cafe Voltaire into Saint Petersburg on a cool night, and it doesn't get in the way of a couple of pretty good performances. Michael Hannen's dreamer can get a tad unctuous at times, but his starry-eyed yet cerebral quality is faithful to Dostoyevski. Mangiameli does better work here than in Not I as she creates the captivating, far-off soul who entrances the hapless dreamer. Though this isn't a brilliant production, Cascando's professional, text-driven approach more than makes up for the misguided stab at Beckett.

Carpe Noctem's production of Krapp's Last Tape is more subpar Beckett, though it suffers less from a lack of understanding than from an unsatisfying performance in the title role. Michael Sassmann's portrait of the 69-year-old Krapp, who uses his collection of tapes of his voice to awaken faltering memories of the past, is consistent but not altogether convincing.

At its best Krapp's Last Tape can be a humorous yet devastating look at the process of aging and the malleable nature of memory. This, however, requires a masterful performance. Under Michael Kosiarek's direction, Sassmann follows all of Beckett's instructions to the letter and tries to invest each of his sighs and words with the proper import, but he's never sufficiently believable to engage the audience. This Krapp seems too young--the 39-year-old Krapp on tape seems not much younger than the 69-year-old Krapp. And the mannered, halting walk Sassmann has adopted is far more caricature than character.

Carpe Noctem does better with Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. This collection of monologues, ranging from the paranoid ravings of a New York madman to the sanctimonious talk-show babble of a self-aggrandizing British rock and roller, attempts to give a cross section of American society in the present age and to describe the downfall of the Western male.

Bogosian's problem is that he's rarely able to draw an honest characterization. He's too often present, winking and making fun of his characters, sacrificing honesty for a quick laugh. When his characters speak ironically, it's often overdone. The rock star, with his racism and self-importance ("I'm an amazingly wonderful human being"), is too easy a target. The classlessness of the Italian street tough who throws his buddy a stag party ("We got clam dip from 7-Eleven--we spared no expense!") is a cheap shot. And the coldheartedness of his Jewish businessman firing an old employee ("Yes, I know he's 58, but let's look at the human side of the equation") strains credibility.

Lindsay Jones gives an enjoyable if not perfect performance. The accents he uses are not always consistent and he's not the consummate performer Bogosian is, but Jones has his moments, particularly as the overwritten Jewish businessman and the Italian tough. His energy and enthusiasm pretty much compensate for what he lacks in versatility, and the laughs he inspires wipe out the memory of the Beckett.

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