TWO PLAYS FOR THE KIDS
CONTEMPORARY CLASSICS: KRAPP’S LAST TAPE AND THE ZOO STORY AT DEAF WEST THEATRE
Each time Deaf West announces a new project, it’s difficult not to wonder if they’ve finally bitten off more than they can chew this time ‘round. This is again an understandable reaction when the courageously limitless company, on hiatus for four years from their own NoHo Arts District space (where I got to “play” in the meantime with The Company Rep in Dürrenmatt’s Play Strindberg and the Thorin Alexander/Max Kinberg’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol) while their enormously successful mounting of Big River toured internationally, made known it would mark its return by attempting to undertake two already notoriously difficult Beckett and Albee one-acts.
Under the pristine but resourceful direction of Jevon Whetter, Deaf West veteran Troy Katsur is mesmerizing in ol’ Sam’s one-person Krapp’s Last Tape, a piece often rendered lethal in performance thanks to the playwright’s compelling but merciless drone of disenchantment with the human condition. Krapp’s can only saved from drowning in its own woebegone and cynical rhetoric by an exceptional actor and inspired staging, and here in this glorious rechristening of the Deaf West Theatre, it couldn’t be realized with more entrancing results as Katsur effortlessly brings a lager-than-life and decidedly risky Buster Keaton-like, almost pantomimed quality to the title role. The spooling and respooling of the infamous Tape 5 from Box 3 takes on curious new life as a video projected behind Krapp flutters by in grainy black and white as he watches himself 30 years younger, letting the sorrow of his battered and disillusioned advanced years form a sad counterpart to his own youthful enthusiasm captured on VHS tape.
It’s a fresh and fascinating approach to the familiar material that’s even more pronounced with Albee’s early career-maker The Zoo Story. Brilliantly directed by Coy Middlebrook, who has craftily chosen to play the piece out on two adjacent Central Park benches, the dynamic and highly physical Tyrone Giordono (Big River’s far more wide-eyed and enormously less jaded Huck Finn) and Katsur, equally to be commended here for his subtly as he is for his intentionally overplayed Krapp, respectively interpret that scary urban monster Jerry and the quietly respectable businessman Peter, two strangers who share one of the most beguiling and often unnerving two-character encounters in contemporary theatre. On the less prominent bench sit Greg Bryan and Jeff Alan-Lee, who have a challenging task they ace with great success: playing alternately amused and terrified observing bystanders while still finding the perfect emotional tone to simultaneously voice Peter and Jerry’s dialogue to us less evolved audience members who don’t know ASL.
Karyl Newman’s sparsely effective set designs for both pieces are also an asset, with Krapp’s dismal lone room, complete with the obligatory single suspended raw lightbulb, brilliantly crafted to illuminate the videofeed and alternately show Krapp moving around in ever-expanding and shrinking shadows behind it. This innovatively gives way after act break to equally claustrophobic but glorious huge photographic tapestries of Central Park (ironically and eerily for me taken just around the corner from my New York flat) looming grandly above a stage strewn with real fall-colored leaves. Jeremy Pivnik’s evocative lighting and John Zalewski’s barely perceptible sound plot also immeasurably help the production to celebrate this pair of groundbreaking contemporary classics.
Deaf West’s indelible take on
and The Zoo Story is a great way to bring the company home, instantly showing that uniquely inspired mid-century avant-garde theatre and this uniquely inspired troupe belong together, as the heightened physicality of the actors and the heightened theatricality of the plays prove a splendid match indeed.
Deaf West Theatre is located at 5112 Lankershim Bl., NoHo; for tickets, call (818) 272-2773 or use (818) 508-8389 for TTY.