A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco is featured in Samuel Beckett's brief and rarely seen one-act Play, currently performing together with Beckett's iconic drama Endgame on the A.C.T. mainstage through June 3. Fusco shares what it feels like to perform Beckett's tongue-twisting text—while encased in an urn.
The greatest theater artists are those who can conjure the simplest, most evocative imagery and harness it to a profound view of life—Hamlet contemplating the skull of poor Yorik, Mother Courage struggling to pull her wagon, Willy Loman and his suitcases. Great directors can do this as well; Julie Taymor leaps to mind, as of course does Peter Brook.
Perhaps no playwright has managed this feat more often or more rigorously than Samuel Beckett. Every one of his plays is iconic. Every word, every image is stripped to its powerful essence.
In Beckett's Play, two women and a man, up to their necks in urns, are interrogated by a roving spotlight. In fractured, disjointed, interwoven monologues, they compulsively repeat and rehash the details of their unhappy romantic triangle, and meditate on their present condition. Where are they? How long have they been there? Are they dead or alive? Why are they unaware of each other? No answers are given. The questions multiply. The resonances echo.
By stripping Play down to pure theatricality, Beckett also achieves something nearly cinematic. Fracturing the text creates a theatrical version of the jump-cut: as the spotlight whisks from one face to another, the story is revealed in discontinuous fragments and from three simultaneous points of view. And somehow, it all adds up to a perfect metaphor for the human condition.
It is also probably the most difficult thing I have done on a stage.
Just learning the lines was a challenge! Sentence fragments. Repetitions. Cues that have nothing to do with the next line spoken. For the first time in my career, I had to learn the part by rote. I typed up just my lines, leaving gaps for "the other stuff the other people say" and memorized it as a monologue, with interruptions. Gradually, my mind created associations between my text and the other characters' and it began to seem more fluid. But just a little. There are still moments when I am gripped with a sudden terror that I don't know what comes next. I am hopeful, but not confident, that this will get better.
Being in the urn is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an unusual experience as well. While not uncomfortable, it is confining. Or rather, defining. All of the performance energy I am used to sending throughout my whole body is instead funneled into just my face, mostly my mouth. Even so, I find my body writhing and contorting in my urn, in spite of my valiant attempts to remain at ease. Both I and the audience are fortunate that urn is there, so nobody has to see what is happening inside it!
Throughout rehearsals, we have experimented wildly to find the right expression of this text. Should it be dry and emotionless, or filled with feeling and coloration? How fast or slow? How quiet or loud? Beckett states that it should be spoken rapidly and in a "toneless" manner throughout. But would that work in a 1,000-seat theater? Do we need to do more to connect with those nice folks in the balcony? We have finally settled on what we hope is the best answer for this production in this theater at this time. (By the way, it does move along at a pretty good clip. Kudos to our stage management and lighting team, who have the task of making that interrogator's spotlight swivel and pivot on cue!)
We often had friends and colleagues observe rehearsals, and their reactions—all over the map—pretty much proved that Play is almost like a psychologist's ink-blots. It reveals more about the viewer than about the viewed. That's the great thing about the theater, and that's why it's different from most cinema; by demanding that you in the audience augment the play with your imagination, it allows you to have a unique experience of a collective event. Through his spare, powerful, abstract theatricality, Samuel Beckett allows you (forces you!) to use your imagination in an unusually profound way.
I hope you enjoy these two remarkable plays. That'll be me, in the urn. The one in the middle.