Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dennehy the Right Man for Double Bill

Colin Hunter (the Kitchener-Waterloo Record) reviews the double bill of Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape:

"We, the audience, got 20 minutes older during the intermission.

"Somewhere backstage, Brian Dennehy aged a decade or two.

"It wasn't simply the addition of bushy eyebrows and high-waisted trousers that transformed the actor from a two-bit gambler named Erie into a dishevelled, embittered old coot called Krapp.

"Dennehy's metamorphosis was complete and stunning -- an overhaul of his entire being.

"Even the glimmer in his eye that brought a roguish spark to Erie was deadened when the actor reappeared onstage as Krapp following the intermission of Saturday's opening night performance.

"It is Dennehy's commanding presence that, above all else, makes the double-bill of one-act plays Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape a strong and affecting addition to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

"The show begins with Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, a glimpse into the crumbling world of a gambler named Erie who has lost everything -- his money, his dignity and his only friend, a recently deceased hotel clerk named Hughie.

"On the tail end of a three-day bender, Erie wobbles into the hotel -- a decrepit Manhattan flophouse in which members of the audience truly feel like flies on the wall.

"Behind the desk stands a new night clerk, Hughie's replacement, a meek and tired little man who seems in no mood to talk.

"But Erie is all talk -- a verbose embellisher keen to tell his tall tales about big-money poker games and the beautiful dames he has bedded.

"Hughie loved hearing such stories, Erie insists. The new night clerk, however, has a blank, faraway stare that suggests he is barely awake, let alone paying attention.

"Veteran actor Joe Grifasi is perfect as the clerk, a deceptively difficult role with few lines but a mountain of meaning. Grifasi and Dennehy have performed together in other productions of Hughie, and it shows -- they are wholly believable as the play's mismatched, nocturnal ships in the night.

"When they ambled offstage together, Grifasi patted Dennehy once on the back -- perhaps just a friendly gesture from one actor to another, or perhaps a final hopeful glimmer of friendship between Erie and the clerk.

"If Hughie ends with a hint of optimism, it's the last optimism the audience gets, since Krapp's Last Tape is unrelentingly bleak.

"The audience returns from intermission to see only a small wooden desk at centre stage, a tape recorder and some tape reels scattered on it.

"The house lights dim and, moments later, a single spotlight beams onto Dennehy, apparently decades older, slouched, staring intensely at nothing.

"He sits in silence, glaring, for an unsettlingly long time before he engages in some absurd activities that unmistakably identify the play as the work of Samuel Beckett.

"Krapp rummages for a banana, deliberately slips on its peel, mutters to himself and disappears offstage to glug what we presume to be strong liquor.

"Finally he plunks down at the desk, loads a spool of tape into the player and listens to an audio diary he recorded as a much younger man.

"Clearly his life has not turned out the way his younger self had envisioned. Dennehy conveys a vast array of emotions with the most subtle, non-verbal expressions -- a grunt, a grimace, a lick of his dried lips.

"Krapp is a tragic character (even his scatological name seems chosen by Beckett to convey this), but he is also the author of his own misfortune. The audience doesn't know whether to pity Krapp or merely dislike him.

"Krapp's Last Tape is more accessible than Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot, but not by much. One theatregoer lamented noisily after Saturday's show that if Krapp's Last Tape were some kind of joke, it wasn't very funny.

"She was half-right: it's not very funny. It's a melancholic and often disturbing portrait of regret and sorrow.

"It's a one-man show that requires just the right man, since it could easily become dull or silly if attempted by an unskilled actor.

"Dennehy, thankfully, is just the man for the job -- a virtuoso performer who easily lives up to the hype that the Stratford Festival has built up around him."

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