Saturday, July 5, 2008

Krapp/Hughie is "Theatre for the Mind"

Together, Krapp's Last Tape and Hughie are worth five stars, according to critic John Coulbourn (Sun Media):

"Ask anyone who's ever fallen under the spell of fine theatre and they'll tell you some of the best theatre in the world takes place not on the stage, but rather in your mind.

"That's precisely the kind of theatre on offer in a double bill of one-act dramas that opened on the stage of the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre this past weekend.

"The playwrights featured are titans of the 20th-century stage -- America's Eugene O'Neill (represented by Hughie, one of the last pieces authored in his remarkable career), paired with Britain's Samuel Beckett, (represented by Krapp's Last Tape, a one man tour de force that has been offered up several times on local stages by such acclaimed artists as Hume Cronyn and John Neville.)

"The two works are fused into a single entertainment in two powerful ways.

"First and foremost, they are both about characters whose best-before-date has left them far behind, leaving them to live on memories and dreams.

"In Hughie, that character is Erie, a down-at-the-heels gambler who returns to the Manhattan flea-bag he calls home after a long bender, inspired in no small part by the death of his longtime friend, the Hughie of title.

"The night clerk in the hotel where the action takes place, Hughie was, at least by Erie's lights, a bit of a mope, who found vicarious thrills in Erie's high-flying ways.

"But as the gambler mourns the passing of his friend, it becomes obvious that Erie needed Hughie far more than Hughie needed him, Hughie being finally the only person in Erie's ever-diminishing world who saw him as a winner.

"In Krapp's Last Tape, we meet the Krapp of title on his 69th birthday as he prepares, as he has every year for at least the past 30, to update his reel-to-reel audio diary.

"But finally, it isn't what's transpired in the past year that dominates his thoughts but rather the memory of a romance that ended on a watery note some 30 years previous.

"Joined as they are into a single evening, interrupted only by a brief intermission, they represent a perfect opportunity for a seasoned actor to strut his stuff -- and 'seasoning' is precisely what Brian Dennehy brings to these roles, immersing himself so completely in each of them that it is initially hard to believe it is the same actor in both performances, even though that single actor is essentially the glue that holds it all together.

"Teamed up with the wonderfully understated Joe Grifasi as the inscrutable replacement night clerk in Hughie and completely on his own in Krapp's Last Tape, Dennehy proves a master at invisible performance, so completely inhabiting the characters that he seems possessed of shape-shifting abilities that would give a magician pause.

"Patrick Clark's sets and Robert Thomson's lighting are both artfully and impeccably pressed into Dennehy's service, highlighting a matched pair of magnificent performances.

"And while one suspects that director Robert Falls has not left even trace elements of emotion behind in O'Neill's character study, Jennifer Tarver allows a few niggling oversights to undermine her otherwise strong direction of Krapp's Last Tape, not the least of which is the fact that Krapp at 39 on tape sounds a whole lot more American than Krapp sounds in life at age 69.

"But those are indeed niggling concerns in the face of such superb work -- rare work that invites the audience to use their own imaginations to see into the past and the future of the characters they are watching.

"And in the process, help in the making of great theatre for the mind. "

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