Theater Review: Plays New and Old Back to Back and Reel to Reel

Fort Point Theatre Channel made a call for submissions for a new play to serve as a companion piece to “Krapp’s Last Tape.” The result: a performance of Samuel Beckett’s classic with the world premiere of “The Archives” by Skylar Fox, a young playwright already gaining a reputation locally as a director.

Reel to Reel: Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Marc S. Miller. The Archives by Skylar Fox. Directed by Tasia A. Jones. Presented by Fort Point Theatre Channel at the Factory Theatre, Boston, MA, through April 12.

Krapp's Last Tape

Steven Barkhimer in “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Photo: Marc S. Miller.

by Ian Thal

Many of Samuel Beckett’s major works are relatively short plays, clocking in at an hour or less. The temptation is often to present them with other plays. For the program Reel to Reel, Fort Point Theatre Channel (Note: my commedia dell’arte troupe, Teatro delle Maschere, made its premiere at one of FPTC’s Exclamation Point! events in 2010) asked for submissions for a new play that would serve as a companion piece for Krapp’s Last Tape. The result couples a performance of a modernist classic with the world premiere of The Archives by Skylar Fox, a young playwright already gaining a reputation locally as a director.

Beckett wrote Krapp’s Last Tape for the Irish actor, Patrick Magee. It is one of the few plays which he composed first in English (most of his best known works were written in French). The opening stage direction sets the scene as taking place on “a late evening in the future” – but this future is not post-apocalyptic vision as it might be in Beckett’s other plays, as with Happy Days or Endgame. This is a world where electricity and fresh bananas are available, and Krapp can have an occasional sexual liaison. First performed in 1958, when the author was 52, it is apparently inspired by a future Beckett envisioned for himself: a reclusive, mostly forgotten 69-year-old writer whose latest work has sold only seventeen copies, “of which eleven at trade price [were sent] to free circulating libraries beyond the seas.” This interpretation is supported by the manner in which Krapp’s reminisces of his parents and his former lovers coincide with Beckett’s own biography.

On his 69th birthday, Krapp listens to a recording he made on his 39th birthday in which he recounts listening to a recording his 20-something-year-old self made on his birthday. The latter judges himself to be a fool before he recounts some of his exploits of the past year. On the tape, the 39-year-old Krapp begins to describe a powerful vision he experienced on a pier — but his older self fast forwards over the narrative, preferring to listen to an erotic experience his younger self had with an unnamed “girl in the punt.”

The older Krapp then makes his own birthday recording: he talks about his disdain for his younger selves and for himself grown old, relates an anecdote about going to church, and describes more recent sexual exploits with a prostitute who makes house calls. His epiphany is never revealed.

In Steven Barkhimer’s performance of this challenging role, Krapp’s decrepitude is rooted not only in his radical isolation from humanity, but in whatever real or psychosomatic physical ailments he believes he has. Krapp spends the early part of the play speaking only in single words and sentence fragments; Barkhimer’s Krapp moves in seemingly aimless, fragmented gestures, tentative and mysterious flickers of the body.

Director Marc S. Miller honors the Beckett Estate’s insistence that productions hew as closely as possible to Beckett’s stage directions. That said, Miller and Barkhimer do add a few extra bits of physical business: The drawer in which Krapp keeps his unused tape spools and fresh bananas is locked. He seems to identify his keys by holding them up to the light in order to read the teeth in silhouette. Such innovations do not radically recontextualize the script, but flow from the requisite existential clowning that Beckett welcomed.

In contrast to Krapp’s future, Skylar Fox’s The Archives takes place in our 21st century present. On the day before her birthday, college student Anna (Allison Smith) receives a package from her estranged mother (Karin Trachtenberg) containing a large collection of tape spools, with an accompanying request that she use the university’s resources to have the recordings digitized. The librarian (Sally Nutt) is quick to assist Anna in this project.

The tapes that Anna’s mother has sent her are of course, Krapp’s spools, which, as she explains in a letter, she had acquired for free at a yard sale. She had plans to record her Bee Gees albums on them for posterity. (The disclosure suggests a time period — before the cassette deck and when the Bee Gees were still popular. That would mean sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, indicating that Krapp died soon after he recorded his last tape.) However, once she knew what was on the tapes, she dared not record over them.

In the process of listening to the recordings, Anna is inspired to record her own audio account of her birthday aspirations, where she discusses her hopes, insecurities, and competitions with her friends. Of course, it should come as no surprise that the librarian is the girl in the punt who had the tryst with the 39 year old Krapp. In making The Archives a direct sequel to Krapp’s Last Tape, Fox has to grapple with the history of media technologies and what this reveals to the audience about the ages of the characters. The earliest practical reel-to-real tape recorder would be the one the German corporation AEG introduced in 1935, making it possible to imagine that, if Krapp is Beckett’s alter ego, he might have had access to such technology as early as the age of 29. Though it would not become a consumer product until after World War II, around the time Beckett was in his late 30s. Thus the events of The Archives take place somewhere between 60 and 70 years after Krapp’s vision, which means that the librarian is at least in her 80s if not 90s — several decades older than Nutt.

Nutt’s performance as the librarian is an exercise in intelligent understatement, and her silent performance at the end of the play, after Anna has donated the tapes to the library, is a wonderful example of the actor’s craft. Her librarian makes a powerful impression as it slowly dawns on her that the spools are the work of a past lover, and that their brief affair is documented on these tapes. (Note: I have performed once before with Nutt in Ron Pullins’ short play Pico.) We are left with the question of whether the librarian is simply pining for a man she has not seen in over half a century, or whether it is a simple recognition that a memorable part of her life has been documented.

Fox has chosen to disclose the identity of the girl in the punt. Thus he provides a solution to a mundane mystery (who loved whom) rather than explore the greater enigma — the vision that Krapp could not bear to experience again and so fast-forwards over it. Some Beckett scholars suspect that it represents the epiphany that allowed him to escape the influence of his friend and mentor, James Joyce, and develop the brusque, poetic style for which he became known. Perhaps it is for the best: could a definitive answer to Krapp’s mystery ever be satisfying?

The Archives takes place in a world where the iPhone (which was introduced in 2007) is commonplace, and the ubiquity of the internet has shaped everyone’s ability to communicate. Anna’s mother explains that she is out of practice at writing letters, and that even composing an email is difficult for her. Anna, while clearly bright, has little time for introspection in the age of the ever-demanding Internet. The 69-year-old Krapp mutters to himself in sentence fragments; Anna uses many of the one-word interjections common to the 20-somethings of the so-called millennial generation.

Photo: Marc S. Miller

Allison Smith as Anna in “The Archives.” Photo: Marc S. Miller

As Krapp’s life is recorded onto spools of magnetic audio tape to be digitized decades later by Anna — a process that introduces artifacts — strange incongruities are created by the performance of the two scripts back to back. Despite Beckett’s status as a modernist, Krapp’s Last Tape plays out along the classical unities of space and time — distant events are recounted in Krapp’s listening to his 39th birthday recording or speaking into the microphone on his 69th birthday. The Archives, by contrast, takes place over several weeks at various locations on and around the campus Anna attends and her mother’s locations. Some of the scene transitions hint that the script might be more at home as a film. There are a few brief scenes that might function better as part of a screenplay — notably, Anna’s costume changes signify that she is going out with friends, as well as her addresses to off-stage characters. The latter might have carried more dramatic weight had the information been directed toward onstage characters. Perhaps, had Fox directed it himself, given his talent with the visual and spatial demands of directing, these transitions might have come off more smoothly.

Fox has crafted a solid story on the theme of how, echoing Marshall McLuhan’s infamous dictum, “the media is the message.” Different communications technologies alter how we think about the world, how we view the past, and how we will be viewed in the future. But his script, unlike Beckett’s original, is essentially sentimental. In addition, it seems uncertain about what kind of narrative it is: is this a story content to be told in the three-dimensional space of the stage or does it yearn for the two-dimensional film screen?

The two plays, while staged with separate casts and directors, share production crews, so there is a strong design unity. Mark Warhol’s sound design is practically a member of the cast, striking a smooth balance between Barkhimer’s vocal performance and the physical artifacts of electromagnetic tape, the latter filling the odd-shaped performance space of the Factory Theatre. Rich Dorff’s shelves and bookcases and their contents are made up of laminated layers of corrugated cardboard; the flat brown paper is, depending on the lighting, alternately warm and dusty in appearance. Forrest Walter’s props, especially the large collection of boxes in which the tapes are stored, hint at intriguing possibilities. Susan Paino’s costumes are apt, be they Krapp’s tattered sleeveless waistcoat, the librarian’s elegant scarf, Anna’s numerous fashionable outfits, or her mother’s more practical clothing. Ian W. King’s lighting design brings out the colors of the set and costumes and creates some fascinating chiaroscuro effects – especially in scenes where the spinning spools reflect light across the shadows on Barkhimer’s ashen face.

Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report


  1. Shelley on April 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

    God, I love that “seventeen copies.”

    • Ian Thal on April 11, 2014 at 8:25 pm

      It’s one of those wonderful details that Beckett could put in that was so meaningful.

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