By Lucy Komisar
Can a director and a set designer destroy a play? The production of Samuel Beckett‘s “Embers” at BAM provides a strong argument.
A huge skull sits in the center stage. Inside are two actors (Andrew Bennett and ine N Mhuiri) who read the lines of the various male and female characters of Beckett‘s play. I thought the production was dreadful. And I thought that maybe the play was also dreadful.
But then I read the script. I realized the play is much better than this production would have you believe. Beckett‘s play is about a man, an unsuccessful writer, who is thinking over his life and relation with his father, who may have committed suicide by walking into the sea. His father had told him that he was a “washout,” a failure.
The play takes place insides his mind. Ergo the skull. But theater is visual, and this gimmick does not work.
The man does not have happy memories about his late wife, who is presented as a nonetheless affectionate lady. He also hates his daughter, whose only fault appears to be playing Chopin badly.
As lights flicker over the skull, illuminating one part and then another, taking your attention from the text, I realized that director Gavin Quinn of the Pan Pan Theatre decided that he was the star, not Beckett. So, he overwhelmed the script and the characters with a kitchy avant garde set (the skull by Andrew Clancy) and direction.
Someone thinking of his past can think in real characters. If the play had been done with different actors for the various characters in the script, in a relatively normal setting where everyone was seen (normal meaning not naturalistic, but that you can see the characters interacting), it might have been interesting. The way director Trevor Nunn did superbly last year in “All That Fall,” another Beckett radio play. Pan Pan did the same play a year earlier and used no live actors: the audience sat in darkness listening to recorded voices. Not too sorry I missed it.
Quinn destroyed Beckett‘s “Embers,” entombing the actors in a giant skull, so you never see them. Sitting on stage left, I sometimes saw the female character though the ghastly eye of the skull, but never the male. That was for the audience at stage right. And the loud miked voices provided no difference or subtlety in delivery.
The skull in fact was a perfect commentary on this production. Deadly.
“Embers.” By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Gavin Quinn. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. 718-636-4100. Opened Sept 17; closes Sept. 20 2014. 9/19/14.