Fall 2011 in Review: Theatre at Zellerbach
John Malkovich, Confessions of a Serial Killer, 10/21
After reading the description on Zellerbach’s website, I really had no idea what to expect. As I tried to find my seat, I looked to the stage. Front and center—a table clothed in green covered in stacks of books, a desk lamp, and a black office chair. Rows of seats where a baroque orchestra would be seating formed a concert arc rear stage. The orchestra took their seats and played an overture. Enter Malkovich, alias Jack Unterweger. He circled the table and spoke to the audience as though we had come to a signing and we were just a stop on his tour for his new book, Confessions of a Serial Killer. In reality, Jack Unterweger was a notorious serial sex offender and murderer. Despite this reputation, Malkovich portrays Unterweger sympathetically, as an incorrigible Don Juan who was nothing more than a victim of circumstance and poor upbringing. Via the Unterweger persona, Malkovich delivers the life story of this intriguing individual, with musical accompaniment. The story is centered around “the women of his life,” beginning with his mother and continuing with his lovers and victims (the latter categories typically overlapped). Two soprani play the roles of the women, singing arias selected from various cantati and operas of the 1700s. Translations of the lyrics were projected on a banner-shaped screen hanging from the top of the stage. The lyrics fit surprisingly well with Unterweger’s story. Think of it as a jukebox musical, if the jukebox only contained your great grandparents’ old 78s of raspy Baroque vocal music. And I of course mean that in the best way possible. During the soprani’s arias, Unterweger’s actions are somewhat unpredictable, sometimes hilarious (staring at the subtitle banner in perplexity), sometimes creepy (groping the soprano). As the last aria comes to a close, Unterweger builds an elaborate contraption on the desk using shoelaces and prepares to strangle himself. The orchestra releases and the spotlight hits Unterweger as he stares at the audience in silence, his face stricken with guilt (not the guilt of a man who murdered countless women, but the guilt of a dog who broke your favorite vase). “What the fuck do you think I am going to do?” he asks the audience, slowly and with much deliberation. “I’ve already died once, and believe me, it is not an experience I wish to repeat.” The realization that Unterweger is delivering his monologues from beyond the grave is especially haunting. He explains to the audience that he came to tell the truth, but opens one of his books and reveals to the audience that every page is blank, “because I’ve never spoken a true word in my life.” The validity of the entire performance is then called into doubt and he exits the stage. The sympathy we once felt for Unterweger is replaced by disgust, as is expected. Mr. Malkovich is an exceptionally talented actor, and I look forward to his future work.
Gate Theatre of Dublin, Endgame and Selections from Watt, 11/17
Once again, I walked into the theater without expectation. After all, I’m seeing Barry McGovern, preeminent Beckett actor and scholar, deliver portions of the novel Watt in monologue form. Going in, I’m thinking, “So he’ just gonna read a book to us?” I’m very pleased that that was not the case. McGovern spoke from memory (looking back, I should have expected no less from him) and acted out the narration as if they were stage directions. The lighting even changed to suit the time of day in the diegesis of the novel, shining dim white as the moon for night scenes and bright yellow as the sun for day scenes. Watt is full of amusingly absurd lists of permutations, and McGovern recites these in a way so that the audience is not bored, but laughing hysterically by the end.
The production of Beckett’s one-act Endgame was phenomenal, to say the least. The actor who played Hamm, an aging blind man confined to an armchair, gave a superbly animated performance, making light of such a dark issue. The issue is, surprising to none, death. The play takes its name from the final moments of a chess game. In one act, Beckett introduces four characters approaching the end of their lives. Life is constantly compared to a game that we play and by the end of the act, two characters have lost, their son is on the brink, and his son deserts the house. In true Beckett-ian fashion, the play is darkly humorous, and we as the audience are provoked to uncomfortable laughter in witnessing the disconcerting animosity between Hamm and his middle-aged son, Clov (McGovern). When asked why Clov hasn’t killed Hamm already, Clov bitterly responds, “Because I don’t know the combination to the larder!” As with the characters in Sartre’s existential drama No Exit, the characters in Endgame hate each other, but desperately need one another to go on living, no matter how dismal that living is. The humor-tinged misery is communicated perfectly, and for those going south for spring break, be sure to see Barry McGovern playing Vladimir in Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum.