Playing for its second weekend in an unlikely performance space—The Institute Library at 847 Chapel Street—is a stripped-down production of Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe. Staged by The Young Mechanics Theatre Ensemble, in its inaugural production, the play is both intimate and enigmatic. Consisting of only three characters—a Director (Jeremy Funke), his Assistant (Kaia Monroe), and a Protagonist (Brian Riley)—the dramatic comedy seems as if it is primarily intended as a meditation upon theater. We see the Assistant lead the Protagonist onto a “plinth” or “pedestal” (actually a chair) in a stage space; he’s gowned in black, looking somewhat priestly, hobbled, drooling. The Director proceeds to put him through his paces, demanding the Assistant remove clothes, alter his pose, whiten his skin, looking, we suppose, for the right image to express his idea. We’re clearly in a place where “humanity” (whatever we might conceive that to be) can be compressed into one forlorn figure made to bend or stretch at the autocratic whims of a dictatorial Director. The Assistant at times hesitates, but gamely makes a note of each alteration the Director calls for.
The handbill informs us that the play is “for Vaclav Havel,” and, since Havel was himself a playwright, the play might read as a wry reflection on how potentially dehumanizing theater can be for its participants. It’s to the credit of the play’s director (as opposed to the Director in the play) James Leaf that the element of dramatic commentary is never lost sight of. We’re always aware that what we’re witnessing is not far removed from the grueling rehearsal procedures of theater, to say nothing of the fact that the Protagonist is also always an Actor. A man who has actually to stand silently on a chair for the play’s duration (a half hour, tops) and endure what must be endured.
And yet, Havel, who died last year, was also an important Czech political leader, imprisoned at the time the play was written. With this in mind, it’s easy also to read the Protagonist as a man being oppressed by a regime that dictates how he must move, or stand, or comport himself.
As the Director, Jeremy Funke sucks on a cigar, demands a light frequently, is impatient and distracted but not wholly uncommunicative. He expresses quite well the feeling that this is the Director’s project and his task is to satisfy his audience—his line about having “them all on their feet” suggests he feels he knows best what the audience wants. His Assistant, Kaia Monroe, pleads a little for her touches—she has the Protagonist in a gown and a hat—but doggedly pursues the Director’s vision, as an Assistant must. When the Director withdraws for a bit, her frenzy of cleaning his chair, after she had collapsed into it briefly, expresses the emotional toll of her work, and also her status between the silent Protagonist and the demanding Director: she has liberty of movement even if she has to retract most of what she does of her own will. As the Protagonist, Brian Kiley is superb. He maintains the right degree of dereliction so common with Beckett’s heroes, and, while looking on at the Assistant at the chair, manages a mute expression of inner revelation that strongly suggests a rapport. In the end his gaze off into the distance and what we read there carries much of the play’s ultimate meaning.
Beckett is always a wonder in how much he can convey with so little, and Catastrophe is suggestive on many levels. The title itself can mean, as it generally does, a “disaster,” typically a natural kind, but in its more theatrical meaning it refers to the turn toward a play’s conclusion—the happy outcome of comedy, the disastrous outcome of tragedy. This relatively late play of Beckett’s is perhaps somewhat unique in seeming to offer a deliberate comic catastrophe, though not unequivocally. The final action of the Protagonist, in appearing stoical, defiant, or at least self-willed, can be construed as a message of political hope for the fortunes of dissidents like Havel, or it could also, in the manner of Beckettian irony, allude to the comedy of such hopes and assertions in the face of the surrounding conditions.
In other words, it’s the sort of play you have to make up your own mind about, and to do that you have to see it. And you should:
Performances will be held at 8:00 p.m. at the Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street, March 23, 24, 30, and 31. $5 suggested donation. Because of limited seating, reservations are strongly recommended. To make reservations, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and specify the night you wish to attend and the number of people in your party. Each performance concludes with refreshments and a salon-style discussion.
Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe Directed by James Leaf
Produced by The Young Mechanics Theatre Ensemble: Will Baker, Megan Black, Jeremy Funke, Alice-Anne Harwood, James Leaf, Kaia Monroe, Brian Riley, and Elisabeth Sacks
March 23, 24, 30, 31 The Institute Library 847 Chapel Street, New Haven