Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Radio Plays Brought to Stage

Three Plays by Samuel Beckett


by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Robert Estes
Anton's Well Theater Company
St. Alban's Church, Albany
Thursday, Friday, Saturday until March 21, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

I did not know that Samuel Beckett wrote radio plays, but indeed he did, to varying degrees of success. Thanks to the intrepid literary spelunking and creative foraging of Robert Estes, director of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, three of Beckett’s radio plays are being staged at the tiny St. Alban’s Church in Albany.

The three short plays, “A Piece of Monologue,” “Embers,” and “All That Fall,” are experiments that Beckett himself didn’t seem to hold dear. Although the storylines are hard to follow in this production, Beckett’s lyricism, language, imagery, and unexpected twists persist. While the script for a radio play employs sound effects to help create a listener’s “theater of the mind,” it may not always map well to a live stage performance. For the current production, eliminating some of the sound effects may help the audience focus on the story.

The first play, “A Piece of Monologue,” was written in 1978. The Speaker (Keith Jefferds), an elderly and loquacious man who sometimes talks about himself in the third person, pours forth memories, judgments, and fears about his death at the end of the “two and a half billion seconds” of his life and the “black vast” that awaits. Jefferds masterfully immerses himself in the pain of this character who, as if in self-protection, has swept photos and memories “under the bed with the dust and spiders” and laments that the “dead are gone, and the dying are going.” Jefferds captures the lyricism and musicality, the Irishness and ruggedness, that is so Beckett; his performance evokes King Lear.

Gigi Benson, Kenneth Matis, Keith Jefferds, Brian Levi, Evan D. Winet, Jeff Prescott, Sarah Elizabeth 

The second piece, “Embers” (1959), is about a tormented man riding waves of grief and regret. Here we are treated to profound, solid acting by Brian Levi as Henry and Sarah Elizabeth as the memory of his wife Ada. The sea is the setting and nearly a character in itself, and the inclusion of ocean sounds helps create the mood which is disrupted when Henry “foot-syncs” to the sound of mud-sucked steps.  “Embers” is a good example of the expansive “skullscape” of interior monologues Beckett creates with his characters who traverse up and down their memories only to relive the original anguish. Sometimes it is difficult to discern words and story, but the passion, music, and beauty of the language is as mesmerizing as waves approaching and retreating.

After the success of “Waiting for Godot '' in France in 1957, the BBC invited Beckett to create a radio play, the result being “All That Fall” which is the weakest of the three pieces. Intended as a biting comedy about the mishaps of the dotty, overweight, old Irish bird Mrs. Rooney (Gigi Benson), this production is all over the place with sporadic sound effects like cows mooing and wheels screeching that are more distracting than expository; although they appear in the script, the use of sound needs editing and better execution. In addition, actors (Kenneth Matis and Evan D. Winet, both expert) play dual characters who are not distinctly differentiated, making it hard to follow who is who; perhaps change in costume or posture might help. “All That Fall” may have had a different impact in the original BBC production, but here it created confused, boring chaos.

For these plays, Beckett’s lyricism, passion, and language transcend incidental problems with physical execution. In Anton’s Well’s production of the three radio plays, the superb acting is the wheat surrounded by chaff.

Three Plays by Samuel Beckett,”directed by Robert Estes. Anton’s Well Theater Company, St. Alban’s Church. Info: antonswell.org

A Piece of Monologue
Speaker -  Keith Jefferds

Henry - Brian Levi
Ada - Sarah Elizabeth

All That Fall
Mrs. Rooney - Gigi Benson
Christy / Mr. Barrell - Kenneth Matis
Mr. Tyler - Jeff Trescott
Mr. Slocum / Mr. Rooney - Evan D. Winet
Miss Fitt - Sarah Elizabeth
Female Voice / Dolly - Michele Delattre

Director - Robert Estes
Sound Design - Michael A. O’Brien
Lighting Design - Nate Bogner
Assistant Director, Producing Associate, Program Design, and much more - Wm. Diedrick Razo
Photography - Jane Shamaeva

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Loneliness of the Long-Suffering Worker


Jared Corbin, Jeremy Kahn, Lauren English Photo: Kevin Berne

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Eric Ting
The Strand Theater, 1127 Market, San Francisco

Until April 12, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

A workplace can be like a Skinnerian experiment where rats compete to win pellets or avoid shocks. This is especially true where communication is sparse and tension is high as workers carry out mundane, daily routines that read like stage directions for theater of the absurd.

A.C.T.’s production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Gloria,'' masterfully directed by Eric Ting, is what I would call a great American drama in that it balances on the increasingly familiar blade of loneliness, alienation, and violence. It opens with uplifting liturgical choral music filling the space as the stage reveals a drab, uninspired office scene of spiritless gray walls, cubicles decorated with what little individuality someone can bring to a job, narrow passageways, glaring fluorescent lights, and a frosted opaque glass window to separate the management from the workers. The beautiful music is filling the head of Miles the intern  (Jared Corbin) who removes his headset as he tends to the copy machine that churns out sheet after sheet of documents that will be collated but never read. The feeling is that of waste: of resources, time, energy, and space.

Miles dutifully carries out the lame tasks assigned by Dean (Jeremy Kahn) and Ani (Martha Brigham) who chat about the party Gloria, a coworker, gave the night before. It is clear that Gloria is  a pariah, a “painted bird” that is excluded from the flock, someone group solidarity insists you shun, like the “pig” in Lord of the Flies. Gloria apparently had put in a lot of effort for her party, hiring a caterer, inviting the whole office, only to have just four people show up, including Dean. Another coworker, self-absorbed busybody Kenra (Melanie Arii Mah) arrives late, probably because she was shopping. The conversation is banal but caustic as the three engage in rapid fire gossip about everyone, including the manager Nan who is unseen behind the frosted glass.

Martha Brigham, Jared Corbin, Melanie Arii Mah  Photo: Kevin Berne

A frumpy, serious, and angrily depressed woman appears; it is Gloria (Lauren English, about to implode) who has been a good worker with the company for years. Her face is a frozen mask of numbness, disdain, and bitter resignation as she fastens her gaze on the group, who burst into nervous laughter as soon as she leaves. The only other person outside the fray is Lorin (Matt Monaco) who works down the hall and appears only to plead silence from the jabbering jays. He is there to work, but his job, too, is menial, having been promoted to head fact checker, fact-checking the work of subordinate fact checkers.

Matt Monaco Photo: Eric Berne
The pressure of the toxic workplace is palpable, brimming with stale dreams, secret passions, guarded intentions, misery, and stress. How can anyone stand it?

Imagine a lab blown to smithereens by a failed experiment. This is the emotional equivalent of the end of Act I, the details of which I will not divulge except to say that subsequent trauma affects different people in different ways.

This story of workplace ostracism, personal connection, disconnection, greed, and selfishness is universal and painful. The second act follows the aftermath of decisions made by the surviving characters. Some turn trauma into opportunity; others are shattered and humbled. And yes, there is a chance of redemption. When the dust settles, what’s left is the simple decision to connect with each other and take a chance on kindness.

The set design by Lawrence Moten is fluid, compelling, and remarkable as it mirrors the flow of the story from gray office to Starbucks to upscale minimalism and finally to a peaceful space with a warm, chapel-like glow occupied by earnest and intense Lorin, the only character who listens and shows compassion throughout the play.

Gloria” raises questions of one’s own story: Who tells it? Who owns it? What is real, and what is appropriated? What does it mean to be a person? Branden Jacobs-Jenkins looks under the rock of mundane scenarios to reveal the dark beings living beneath. “Gloria '' is a cautionary tale, giving the viewer an opportunity to improve the human connection and transcend to redemption.

Gloria,” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Eric Ting, A.C.T. Strand Theater. Until April 12, 2020. Info: act-sf.org

Watch the trailer: https://youtu.be/z7KbzjMS3-I

Martha Brigham*
Ani, Sasha, Callie

Jared Corbin**
Miles, Shawn, Rashaad

Lauren English*
Gloria, Nan

Jeremy Kahn*
Dean, Devin

Melanie Arii Mah*
Kendra, Jenna

Matt Monaco**

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States

*Member of the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2020, appearing in this production courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association


Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Directed by
Eric Ting

Scenic Designer
Lawrence E. Moten III

Costume Designer
Christine Crook

Lighting Designer
Wen-Ling Liao

Sound Designer
Madeleine Oldham

Props Design Associate
Jacquelyn Scott

Voice & Dialect Coach
Lisa Anne Porter

Movement Coach
Danyon Davis

Joy Meads