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Stage

Fail Better

Acme Corporation performs 12- and 24-hour versions of Beckett’s Play

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Naomi Kline, left, and Sophie Hinderberger


Play

Written by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Stephen F. Nunns and Lola B. Pierson

Friday, Noon: I enter St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Station North as three actors, Nathan Cooper, Naomi Kline, and Sophie Hinderberger, begin their 12-hour rendition of Samuel Beckett’s play Play. The three actors are standing on the upper level of the circular room, silhouetted by the noon-day sun coming in through the yellow stained-glass windows behind them. In front of each is a chain-link fence. Each actor speaks in overlapping words as Stephen Nunns shines a spotlight on them, quickly rehashing their roles in a love triangle that would be repeated almost ad nauseum, in a literal way.

This is the kind of staging one expects from Beckett, who intends these characters to be speaking their lines from within funeral urns, creating a sort of purgatorial situation where the adulterer and his two lovers must endlessly replay their roles in this domestic drama—as evidenced by the stage direction: “Repeat” at the end of Beckett’s script. The Irish modernist only ever repeated the play two and a half times, but Towson University professor Stephen F. Nunns and the Acme Corporation decided to take the refrain literally and see how far they could go.

As I sat down, I half-expected they would go on like this for 12 hours, the actors locked in their cages and their overlapping rapid-fire, staccato monologues. I was alone as the first section ended and Cooper came down into the lower part of the room, where I was sitting, and beckoned me to come with him into a makeshift bedroom sectioned off at the end of the room. There, staring straight at me, he delivered his lines as a monologue, and the story began to become clear.

His character, named only M, had a relationship with two different women. W1 (Kline) smells W2 (Hinderberger) on him and has him tracked by a P.I., whom he bribes. W1 threatens to cut her own throat and then goes to confront W2. M confesses to W1, but also returns to W2. Even after numerous viewings, it is unclear exactly what happens next, but each ends up alone, imagining the other two together.

But no character’s lines make perfect sense without the others’ and in the course of an hour, they deliver Beckett’s lines four times—in three different scenarios, and a monologue each.

These monologues, in which each character delivers his or her lines in isolation, are among the most powerful parts of an extremely powerful performance—especially if you’re the only person there. I had no idea what to expect as I was brought into this bedroom, in succession by Cooper, Kline, and Hinderberger—even after I had seen it once. It is rare in theatergoing life that one is performed to one-on-one, and it is extraordinarily unnerving and unsettling, as I later discovered, for the actors as well as the audience because it is so almost brutally intimate.

The intimacy was heightened by the fact that, after his first monologue, Cooper walked out, leaving me in the bedroom. When I returned to my seat, all three actors were changing clothes, getting dressed on the floor directly in front of me. The scene that followed is an absurdly funny British-cocktail-party rendition of the script, followed by the second monologue, after which the actors changed again, and moved into a third interpretation of the script. Even in a single cycle (which takes about an hour), Play is a tour-de-force for the actors and all three bring brilliant nuance to rather sparsely written characters. Upon repetition, it gets really interesting. My first noon visit lasted for two run-throughs, and as I began to settle into this timeless rhythm, I wished I could stay longer, alone with these characters in this theatrical purgatory. But I had to leave, and they were alone again, running through the same scenes.

Friday, 5:00 P.M.: As the actors neared the middle of their 12-hour run—to be doubled this week with a 24-hour version—Lola Pierson, co-director and set designer, told me, “I think they’re beginning to fall apart a little now.” As I came in, each had already spoken his and her lines 20 times. It was dusky now and they glowed more in the golden light behind them, Nunns’ spotlight illuminating their faces further.

There were now four spectators. The cocktail version was more insane now, its drunken devolution more authentic; and during the final section, Cooper delivered nearly all his lines with his mouth full, spitting and dribbling crumbs around the room. (Originally they were only going to be able to eat during these scenes, onstage, but they decided to allow themselves some sustenance backstage during the monologues.)

As I left after an hour, my own steps seemed pre-programmed in the same way. I was repeating my path, my lines, my life.

Friday, 10:30 P.M.: The church-cum-theater was now crowded with latecomers hoping to see the effects of this extended performance on the actors. Nunns later said that one of the reasons people come to the theater is the possibility of failure, and that possibility was heightened by such a feat of endurance. But something else happened in each section, particularly in the monologues: Everything that was “acting” in the performances was burned away, purified. As Kline delivered her final monologue, nearing midnight, she massaged her calf absently, not in the way that someone would think a character should, but as someone on her feet all day actually would. In their weariness, the actors transcended themselves and became the character. As the clock struck midnight, Nunns made an announcement and turned on the lights, exhausted—the purgatory of repetition had ended. It was the closest I’d ever come to religion in a church.

Saturday, Noon: On March 22, Acme Corporation will do the whole thing again, only they will do it twice as long, performing for a full 24 hours. Because the repetition and the intimacy are so essential to the experience, the 24-hour version seems to offer a unique chance to see the play numerous times—and at strange hours, when one is certain to be all alone. When I met the actors at noon on Saturday, none were ready to think about that yet. But Hinderberger, Kline, Cooper, Nunns, and Pierson were all thrilled to discuss what they had just been through.

“I think Nathan said it backstage yesterday,” Hinderberger said, before Cooper, who had overslept, arrived. “I feel like I’ve done everything and nothing today. Because when you’ve done it for the sixth time, there’s this weird . . . it squishes time into little sections.”

“We made a prison marker on the wall backstage,” Kline said. “Like, this is the top of the seventh.”

When Cooper arrived, he said his most intense moment was just after lying down during someone’s monologue. “I didn’t sleep, but I was just relaxing. I thought this would be good for my body. But it wasn’t. We came out to do it behind the cages again and the light popped on my face and I had nothing—absolutely nothing. I missed the first one and the second one and the third one. I didn’t know what to do. It was a feeling of hopelessness, fear, and shame.”

This admission provoked great laughter from Cooper’s colleagues, and somehow it hits on something in the essence of Beckett. In the play’s program, Acme Corporation includes its agreement with Samuel French—the theatrical licensing company—most of whose provisions it seems to violate in its production. But in violating these provisions, intended to ensure that Play was produced only exactly as Beckett originally envisioned it, the Acme Corporation makes the play more Beckettian than Beckett, whose most famous line is probably, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”

Acme Corporation performs Play at St. Marks Lutheran Church from 12 PM Friday March 22 through 12 PM Saturday March 23, with no intermissions.

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