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Barrymore award-winner Catharine Slusar stars in Samuel Beckett’s famously formidable one-woman play, Not I. Leading Beckett interpreter and pioneer of site-specific theater Mark Lord directs.
Since its 1973 premiere, Not I has acquired mythic status as a near-perfect distillation of Becket’s minimalist dramaturgy—a solitary mouth babbling in the darkness—and as a fearsome challenge for an actress at the top of her game. An elliptical stream-of-consciousness monologue, the fifteen-minute play is notoriously difficult to memorize; when Jessica Tandy originated the role of the Mouth, she had to rely on a teleprompter. Billie Whitelaw used a hidden earpiece. Past productions have made extraordinary physical demands of the performer. When Whitelaw played the role, she was strapped into a chair with her face painted black and her head held in a vice to keep her lips in their light. When Lisa Dwan performed the piece, galloping through the text in just over nine minutes, she managed to avoid pausing for breath by refraining from swallowing throughout her delivery. She was also blindfolded and, she said, terrified. “When I met Billie,” Dwan later wrote, “we bonded immediately, like two shell-shocked war veterans.”
By emphasizing velocity (and the torture of actresses), past productions have yielded important insights about the play. But they have also neglected the sense of the text, often reducing Beckett’s words to one long, largely unintelligible yowl of existential agony. This production begins with the assumption that the text of Not I is at least as interesting as its now iconic image. They have also taken the radical step of letting the performer be visible, allowing the audience to understand her outburst as issuing from a person with a body and a complex interior life.
The FringeArts production also gently challenges the myth of Beckett as invincible auteur supreme, the lone playwright in the modern canon whose stage directions are so perfect that any attempt to reconsider or improve upon them is doomed to failure. Beckett himself rethought the staging of Not I several times over the course of his life. The original text calls for a mysterious figure called the Auditor to stand downstage, “enveloped from head to foot in a loose black djellaba,” listening to the Mouth and periodically making “a gesture of helpless compassion.” In a post-premiere production, Beckett had the Auditor figure cover its ears with its hands, as if unable to bear what it was hearing. Beckett eliminated this figure altogether from another production.
When he wrote the play, Beckett could not anticipate all the ways in which his image would resonate (or fail to resonate) with audiences of his time. Nor could he anticipate the ways in which theatrical sensibilities would evolve in the decades after his death. Audiences today are more accustomed to performances that reveal the means of theatrical production. They recognize that art is not hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was produced. Audiences today are more skeptical and, we suspect, less likely to be absorbed by the “illusion” of a disembodied mouth floating in the mystic void of the black box. They are less interested in magic tricks and more interested in ideas.
If this specific production has any “magic” to offer, it is the magic of a naked confrontation between performer and role. While our Not I may look quite different from vintage productions, it may paradoxically be more respectful of the text than any production to come before it, including those Beckett directed himself. Beckett once said that the Mouth’s speech was “a purely buccal phenomenon without mental control or understanding, only half heard. Function running away with organ.” He told one actress that he was “not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.” Perhaps this indifference to comprehension indicated, in part, a lack of confidence in the text. Not I was written in 1972, seven years before Beckett wrote the even more austere A Piece of Monologue, a play about a man standing in the light of a lamp talking about being a man standing in the light of a lamp. In Monologue, which Mark Lord directed in 2005, Beckett trusted that the text could work in concert with an arresting image, that each could enhance the audience’s understanding of the other.
Not I runs from September 15th to October 3rd at Joyous Eddie’s House of Theater (908 Christian St.). The run-time is $15 minutes. Tickets and more information are available here.
About Mark Lord: Since 1992, Lord has been delighting Philadelphia audiences with inspired, stylized, site-specific work, with his critically acclaimed productions of Beckett’s work drawing especially high praise. In 1996, Lord staged Nothing, adapted from Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, at the Eastern State Penitentiary, where spectators experienced the production by traveling through the prison. The Philadelphia Inquirer described it as “an immersion in an anguished, endless, impersonal quest—a straining for images, sounds, or ideas to validate not merely the meaning of existence, but the existence of existence.” Lord’s 1998 production of Beckett’s Endgame starred Pearce Bunting and Maggie Siff as, respectively, Hamm and Clov in what the Inquirer called “an absorbing reading that no dedicated theatergoer should miss.” City Paper also lauded the production, which was staged in the decrepit basement of the Smoke performance center, observing that “Mark Lord’s power as a director comes not only from his willingness to undertake not only difficult texts, but imaginative locations as well.” Years later, Theatermania noted that Lord’s “staging of Beckett’s Endgame continues to be the benchmark against which all festival works are gauged.”
About Catharine Slusar: A two-time Barrymore Award winner and recipient of the Haas Award, Slusar’s physically and emotionally audacious performances have earned her a reputation for fearlessness. Recent credits include Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Theater Exile, a role the Inquirer said she played “with a wild, wide range of passion.” As a Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Arden, Slusar was described as “commanding, witty, fabulously androgynous,” and “gloriously fiendish.” Other credits at Theater Exile include Emma in Annapurna (Barrymore Nominee), Faye in Iron (Barrymore Nominee), Suzanne in Eureka Day, Susannah in Black Pearl Sings!, Dr. Cora Cage in Going to St Ives, Agnetha in Frozen, and multiple roles in Lebensraum (Barrymore Best Ensemble, and Best Production, Nominee Best Supporting Actress). At the Arden she played all roles in TheSyringa Tree (Barrymore Nominee) and Gi in Northeast Local. At FringeArts she played Lady M in Swim Pony’s Lady M, and Zuzka in Jo Strømgren’s The European Lesson.
About FringeArts: The Philadelphia Fringe Festival is a 4-week long, city-wide celebration of innovation and creativity in contemporary performance. Each September, the Festival explodes into every nook and cranny of Philadelphia with more than 1,000 artistically daring performances, including national and international performances curated by FringeArts, and works that are produced by independent artists and promoted by FringeArts.