Some games are fun. And some are very painful — but even so, the human race can’t seem to stop playing them. Now through March 16, the Matrix Theatre Company presents Play and Rockabye, two little, ill-humored, dramatic jewels by the Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett.
Play — with Leah Smith (W1, First Woman), Lessa Bouchard (W2, Second Woman) and David Schoen (M, Man) — is a cackling, clattering, trembling ménage à trois that never actually ever connects. It’s a story you’ve seen and heard a million times — the other woman-love triangle — but this is its ugly, rotten core à la Beckett, pared down to a hideous three-headed metaphor, fully exposed without any fixed particulars to muddle up the truth.
Centered on stage are three huge potbellied urns, topped with three human heads. Staring directly ahead, they spit out words as a spotlight jumps from one to the other, as if juggling human folly.
W1: “I smell you off him, you bitch!”
M: “Adulterers take warning, never admit!”
W2:”Is anyone listening to me?”
By presenting people as if they were items collecting dust on a shelf, Beckett very directly points a finger at these detached heads as lost souls clinging to their complaints about others and creating their own literal prisons through self-victimization.
Play is play, from the lightest to the darkest sense of the word: a dramatic performance, a recreation/re-creation, like children preparing for the real thing, fair play, foul play, to divert, amuse, not take seriously, to use up, take advantage of, and on and on. Beckett’s words hold onto you by the head and heart through a constant pummeling of verbal hooks, each in turn holding onto a laugh and a cry. When M whimpers, “Am I as much as being seen?” he’s both amusingly ridiculous and oppressively pathetic, both tragic and terribly entertaining.
Matrix Theatre has staged a superlative production, cloaking the scene (and the heads) in a comic, harsh, black-and-white palette with urns that look so organic you almost expect them to breathe. Director Shaun Nethercott has studied Beckett intensely and it shows. She describes Beckett’s meticulous attention to staging and word rhythms as musical, and considers both pieces as the playwright’s exploration, through action, of a question: “Why do we cling to our pain?”
In Rockabye, an aging woman rocks back and forth in a rocking chair. It moves by an unseen force, because her feet barely touch the ground. A voice that could be her own speaks to her as she rocks, in a soothing word repetition that echoes and overlaps the monotony and comfort of a simple action: “Going to and fro, time she stopped.”
It’s a sad sight, but whenever the voice stops its winding poem, the woman calls for more, like a child screaming for another story before sleep. Rockabye is a lullaby at the end of a life that doesn’t want to let go, no matter how many years she’s been rocking in that chair.
The performance features Nkenge Zola, a former WDET-FM personality for news and the arts. She left the station to battle breast cancer. A year later, when Matrix approached her with a role in its original production MotherTongue, she decided to try something different: “This is a chance to really test myself in ways that I’ve not done in a long time.”
Whether Zola sticks with it or not, theater is new terrain for her: “Since the diagnosis, it’s just been an adventure. I’m not finished developing whatever I’m going to become — but, hey, it’s fun.”
And what better way to reaffirm life than to immerse yourself in a playwright whose work lives on and on, forever apropos?
Some painful games (well, most) will never go out of style. Perhaps the best we can do is to consider them something to wander in and toss about, in the company of good friends and a pint.
(A word to the wise: Don’t use the Porter Street-Ambassador Bridge exit from I-75 during busy bridge hours if you want to get to Matrix Theatre on time.)
Play and Rockabye by Samuel Beckett are at Matrix Theatre Company (2730 Bagley, Detroit) through March 16 — Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. For more information, call 313-967-0999 or visit www.matrixtheatre.org.Anita Schmaltz writes about film and performance for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]