KRAPP’S LAST TAPE:

“Perhaps my best years are gone.”

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: February 4-20, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 in person; $25 live-streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

Two days, two plays. I would describe both as the type of play meant to make you think, more than just entertain you. (What a treat to even be able to see two live productions in a single week during a pandemic: THIS BITTER EARTH at Richmond Triangle Players and KRAPP’S LAST TAPE a little more than a mile away at The Firehouse.) And both were well done. But now, to get to the play at hand.

Alan Sader is Krapp. (I just had to say that!) But seriously, veteran actor Alan Sader steps into the role of Krapp, a 69-year-old man contemplating his life, as if he had been born for this role. I know Alan Sader, and watching this one-person one-act play, I didn’t see an actor I knew in a role; I saw Krapp.

Written by Samuel Beckett, known for his absurdist style, and directed by James Ricks, Artistic Director for Quill Theatre, KRAPP’S LAST TAPE is a perfect play for a pandemic. Solitary. Isolated. Defeated. The play takes place on Krapp’s 69th birthday. I don’t think he has a first name. To celebrate, for lack of a more appropriate word, Krapp rummages through the archives of tapes he’s made over the years, chronicling his life.

The setting is important – it takes on the aspect of another character. There is a wall of file cabinets, stacked one atop another and interspersed with odds and ends and brick-a-brack. A reel-to-reel tape machine and a portable staircase are supporting actors.

There is an introductory struggle with the ancient tape player – a heavy monstrosity of a machine that nearly gets the best of the old man before he places it precariously on an old rickety desk that seems barely able to support its weight. But that’s not the end of it. Oh, no. The tape machine’s electrical cord falls short of reaching the wall outlet, necessitating not one but two duets with the staircase. Old age and misery are not without their moments of humor.

To access the 30-year-old reel-to-reel tape he needs, Krapp consults a ledger for the carefully cataloged location of the specific tape he needs.  He then has to interact in a comedic duet with a moveable staircase to get to the right file cabinet where the electrical cords are stored. Sader makes climbing the steps a full-on drama, complete with grimaces and groans. In fact, it is quite a few minutes into the play before Sader actually speaks a legible word. The opening is entirely physical – sort of a combination of comedic actor Charlie Chaplin and mime Marcel Marceau.

Speaking of old age, I had to remind myself that this play premiered in 1958 when age 69 might have been considered ancient. Today, 69 is rarely seen as the end of life – except perhaps to people younger than 25. But I digress.

Before finally settling in to reminisce about his younger self, Krapp has one more trick to execute: an orgasmic experience with a banana – which he temporarily stores in his pocket – and an obligatory slipping on the banana peel. Oh, and let’s not forget the delight he takes in saying the word “spool,” drawing it out and repeating it several times.

Once Krapp has settled in, we hear his younger voice on tape (kudos to director James Ricks for his superb sound design), and Sader spends long periods in palpable silence. He hears the optimism of his younger self, aged 39, and doesn’t seem to react much but saves his regret for lost love. The people who passed through his life are ephemeral, but these recorded memories are his reality now.

Like most Beckett plays I’ve seen, this work is not for everyone – certainly not for those who crave action and movement and verbal sparring – but it seems to be the perfect vehicle for this trio: Beckett, Sader, and Ricks. I don’t know how Beckett would have felt about this production, but Sader and Ricks must certainly feel immense satisfaction in their flawless execution of KRAPP’S LAST TAPE.

The live performance, limited to no more than 10 in the audience, was preceded by a live performance by Ryan Phillips on solo acoustic bass – a perfect introduction to KRAPP’S LAST TAPE. The live program runs through February 20 (if there are any tickets left).

Photos by James Ricks:

THE GREAT GATSBY: Allusion, Delusion, Illusion

THE GREAT GATSBY: A Novel Approach

Performances: March 6 – 22, 2020

By: Quill Theatre

At: Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220

Ticket Prices: $40 Adults; $30 VMFA Members; $35 Seniors 65+; $30 RVATA (must show card); $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405 or quilltheatre.org

Love lost and found, wealth and power, prohibition era bootlegging, corruption, infidelity, homosexuality, white supremacy, domestic abuse, the aftermath of war, mystery, lies, and more are all part of the plot, and it all hits the fan in Act Two. It would be impossible not to draw comparisons between the 1922 setting of The Great Gatsby and the state of the world nearly 100 years later, in 2020.

Simon Levy’s 2006 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, now playing at the Leslie Cheek Theatre at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is the only version of the play authorized by the Fitzgerald estate. There’s a lot of history on that stage, but as important as historical context may be, it is human relationships and the human condition that are at the heart of this show. Indeed, the program notes are careful to point out that the lively and dynamic Charleston scene at the top of Act Two would most likely never have occurred, as that dance did not become popular – at least not outside the black community – until 1926, about four years after the setting of The Great Gatsby. Part drama, part comedy – perhaps unintentionally so – The Great Gatsby features a dynamic and diverse cast of major and minor characters.

Kurt Smith is Jay Gatsby. Since this is his debut in the Richmond theater community, I am not at all familiar with his range or abilities, but he elicited many of the laughs on opening night with his awkwardly affected portrayal; he would stick out a hand as if to shake and leave it extended for an inordinate amount of time, or stand in profile with one foot slightly ahead of the other, reminiscent of a figure on an ancient Egyptian painting. The character of Gatsby also, oddly enough, alternates between the confidence of a successful businessman – one who has made his fortune through illegal or illegitimate means – and the nervousness of a schoolboy about to ask a girl on a date for the first time. Somehow, these two sides of Gatsby never truly reconciled.

Rachel Rose Gilmour as Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy Buchanan, adopted the hand-to-forehead swooning persona of the southern bell for most of her scenes. Caught between two loves, she could not decide which to choose, instead allowing circumstances to make the decision for her.

Daisy, who seemingly has everything – a wealthy husband, big home, money and social standing – is actually a victim: a victim of domestic abuse; a victim of 1920’s social restraints placed on women.

Daisy’s husband, Tom, played by Cole Metz, is a pompous, bombastic, white male supremacist who is very much aware of and feels justified in his privilege. Tom is carrying on an affair with the wife of gas station owner whose business he frequents on his trips back and forth from New York City to Long Island. Metz’s character is the one you most want to boo. Each of these main characters has a distinct style and mannerisms – they just do not seem to have selected the same style or mannerisms from the same school or time period.

The play is narrated by Chandler Hubbard who plays Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. The narrator guides the audience through this twisted tale, providing a sort of auditory synopsis, filling in the blanks for the audience members who may have forgotten or never read The Great Gatsby, while Nick seems to represent the voice of reason and the face of good. As the play progresses, and it becomes obvious that wrong-doers will not be held accountable for their actions, he distances himself from the others – even from his high-society girlfriend, Jordan Baker, played by Michelle Greensmith as an overly-confident, sometimes delightfully sarcastic, and generally loud caricature of a flapper – but without the fringes.

Speaking of loud, the un-mic’ed (is that even a real word?) actors were often difficult to hear in the Leslie Cheek Theatre – even from the fifth or sixth row from the front. As to other production elements: Gregg Hillmar’s lighting was sometimes used to effectively highlight scenes while at other times, perhaps because of the thrust of the stage, with steps and ramps downstage, or perhaps because of the structure and limitations of the house, the lighting seemed to extend into the houselights, illuminating the rows of people sitting in front of you as much as the actors onstage. James Ricks, the company’s Artistic Director, did the effective sound design himself, and there was no doubt that Tennessee Dixon had created the projections that added depth and visual interest in lieu of three-dimensional set construction. Among the stunning effects, flying birds and jonquils (a flower that earned prominent mention in another classic play earlier this season, The Glass Menagerie). Interestingly, jonquils are a type of narcissus, named for the character in Greek mythology from whom the word “narcissism” is derived.

Credit for the lively Charleston scene at the top of Act Two – a scene that prominently featured Keaton Hillman and Markell D. Holloway who played the role of the servants, among other roles – goes to Jeremy Gershman and Kayla Xavier. Reed West’s compact set design included a revolving platform that held a surprising variety of furniture and settings and Cora Delbridge designed the lovely and lovingly detailed period costumes that made generous use of sparkling fabrics and swinging fringes.

The cast also included LaSean Greene as the gas station owner, George Wilson, whose wife was involved with Tom Buchanan. Greene has a small part, but a significant scene in the latter part of Act Two. The versatile Amber Marie Martinez played George’s wife, Myrtle – another victim of the times. Melissa Johnston Price, Eddie Webster, and Jeff Clevenger are all well-known accomplished actors who played very small roles. The ensemble included Daniel Camargo (who also played the minor role of Frank), Mara Barrett, Jackie Cook, Kayla Xavier, Mallory Keene, Billy Heckman, Keaton Hillman, Reed Patterson, and Markell Holloway.

With all these features going for it, The Great Gatsby provided an entertaining evening of theater that generated laughs and made the audience confront many unpleasant facets of human nature. With such an accomplished cast and the skillful direction of former artistic director Dr. Jan Powell, I left with a slight feeling of emptiness, as if someone had left out an ingredient. I hope the remaining shows will tighten up and fulfill the high expectations that have been generated. The Great Gatsby has a short run, so freshen up your 1920s attire and catch it before it closes on March 22.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos by Maria V. Salova

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