For years, American audiences watched raptly as Jerry Seinfeld and his television comedy troupe delivered half-hour shows “about nothing.” Of course that was always an oversimplification. The Seinfeld oeuvre actually had many plots and subplots over its nine-year run, but much of the series’ subject matter did concern itself with the trivialities and tics of its main characters – hence, the show was really about “nothing” that was truly important.
It might be a stretch to imply that Seinfeld’s seminal theatrical progenitor was the celebrated author and playwright Samuel Beckett, but a famous review of Beckett’s most well-known work, Waiting for Godot, did hail its creator as someone who “has achieved a theoretical impossibility – a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”
That statement, too, may be an oversimplification. Dubbed “theater of the absurd” by critic Martin Esslin, and bunched together with the works of Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet and others, Beckett’s many stage and radio plays may be maddeningly incongruous, hard to decipher and often repetitious – but they are not absurd in the sense of being ridiculous or unimportant. And they certainly are not about “nothing.”
April 11-20 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center
What Beckett and his contemporaries were exploring was nothing less than modern man’s existential conundrum. Cut off from religious and transcendental roots, these writers saw humanity as a lost species whose actions in the world were ultimately senseless, useless and therefore “absurd.” This sense of vain striving in a universe without meaning was particularly painful to those artistically temperamental Europeans who had witnessed the many horrors of the continent’s wars and revolutions. Thus, the notion of mankind’s metaphysical anguish at the “absurdity” of his condition becomes the underlying theme of Beckett’s works.
But unlike some of the existential authors – Sartre, Camus, Giraudoux, Anouilh – who tried to express man’s absurd state in logically constructed and discursive language, Beckett and his brethren strove to abandon the rational approach in favor of forms that were more akin to the senselessness they were trying to convey. Rather than state a philosophy about life as they understood it via well-wrought theatrical conventions, the “absurd” playwrights defied the norms and pushed the boundaries of their art, creating a new kind of theater for modern audiences – disjointed, illogical and often more suggestive than explicit. As Beckett himself once famously said about his short play What Where, “I don’t know what it means. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s an object.”
Enter John DiDonna and his Empty Spaces Theatre Co. cohorts, embarking upon a marathon rendering of the stage works of Samuel Beckett in honor of the Nobel Prize–winner’s 102nd birthday. For a week in April, an ensemble of many of the area’s finest actors and actresses will perform 15 of Beckett’s 20 stage plays in readings and full productions, two of his seven radio plays and one of his five works for television – a mammoth undertaking that perhaps only DiDonna, one of Central Florida’s most ambitious and creative producer-directors, would tackle.
A recent visit to DiDonna’s suburban Sanford home afforded this writer a glimpse into the intense rehearsal and exploration process that is the hallmark of the Empty Spaces modus operandi. While three actresses, under DiDonna’s direction, ran through the taut, ambiguous Come and Go (a short play described by Beckett as a “dramaticule”), director Anna DeMers was next door in the garage, working on What Where, a four-man exploration of memory, time and subterfuge.
Beckett’s stage directions are very precise, with long pauses and particular movements laid out in detail. Yet within these strict guidelines, the performers of both pieces were finding nuance and meaning that virtually crackled with stage electricity. Silences were resonant with information and even the smallest movements of hands or heads echoed with intensity and feeling.
DiDonna strives for an open rehearsal process rich in give-and-take among the participants. Every suggestion and comment by a cast member is received gracefully with the knowledge that it is in collaboration that the intent of Beckett’s words will be discovered, and that it is in the “doing” that the work’s ultimate meaning will manifest itself.
Over the past several years, DiDonna and his colleagues have presented the works of many great playwrights, as well as producing original plays by Empty Spaces members. From the ridiculous (Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi) to the sublime (Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex), DiDonna’s troupes have endeavored to enlarge the scope of what Central Florida theater audiences will accept, understand and enjoy.
It remains to be seen whether or not these difficult Beckett works will be embraced by a culture more comfortable with Jerry Seinfeld’s pleasant meanderings. If they are patient and willing to find the “somethings” within the confines of works where “nothing” happens, they will be richly rewarded – perhaps even glued to their seats – ultimately coming to appreciate the genius of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and innovative voices.
A CELEBRATION OF THE WORKS OF PLAYWRIGHT SAMUEL BECKETT IN HONOR OF THE NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR'S 102ND BIRTHDAY
Ticketed shows *
Play Shorts Two
Waiting for Godot (full-length tragicomedy)
Free staged readings
Endgame (director Laura Lippman)
Happy Days (director Alan Bruun)
Krapp’s Last Tape (director John DiDonna)
* Charge advance tickets at the Red Chair Project, www.redchairproject.com