TWO BY BECKETT - FOOTFALLS & NOT IBy Samuel Beckett
Directed by Susan Sargeant
Scenic Design – Nick Brethauer
Costume Design – Barbara C. Cox
Lighting Design – Christopher M. Ham
Lighting Assistant – Gabe Coleman
Stage Manager – Bobby Selah
Sound Design/Photography – Lowell Sargeant
Advertising Sales – Susan Sargeant
Production Services – Tim Long / Circle Theatre
Act I: Footfalls:
May – Jennifer Kuenzer
Act II: Not I
Mouth – Susan Sargeant*
* Member of Actor’s Equity Association
Reviewed Performance: 10/5/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Pitch darkness descends. We hear a church bell, and May (Jennifer Kuenzer), perhaps also Amy, enters. She is hugging herself, as if in constant need of self-protection. The position of her arms also might suggest a straight jacket, or even being laid to rest. Symbolically, she performs the entirety of Footfalls in this position, pacing back and forth, forward and back, at times.
May’s costume is perfectly in sync with the set, lighting, and subject matter. Kuenzer is adorned with tattered greyish layers—a ratty shawl over a long dress, with the bottom ruffle half missing—I thought of Miss Havisham, and also a Zombie Bridesmaid. The lighting subtly shifts in color and brightness, to complete the effect of a life in limbo, disappearing into filial duty. Footfalls is broadly speaking about a daughter whose life she feels has been swallowed up by a domineering, needy mother.
The dialogue is haunting. “There is no sleep so deep I would not hear you there.” The audience is presented with a devastating list of nursing, caretaking, and housekeeping duties that May performs for her sick mother. May’s world has collapsed into the black hole of her mother’s unrelenting needs. Sleep itself is only snatched.
The audience is plunged into darkness and the sound of a church bell for changes in the narrative. The title Footfalls refers to, among other things, an earlier time in the mother-daughter relationship, when May’s mother accommodated May by replacing the thick carpet with a bare floor because she “must hear the feet. The motion alone is not enough.” This struggle for self-awareness, and questioning of one’s own identity, is a theme that straddles both Footfalls and the second act play, Not I.
A literary reference to Mrs. Winter and her daughter Amy is introduced, and Kuenzer describes an increasingly acrimonious mother-daughter conversation at the dinner table. We do not learn what Mrs. Winter originally wanted to discuss, because the dialogue veers off into whether Amy was present at church. On more than one level, the chasm in communication between the mother and daughter is revealed.
Amy does not want to engage, and denies seeing or hearing, whatever Mrs. Winter originally takes issue with. At other times, the mother also does not want to hear from her daughter. One line repeated throughout this exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic is the lament, “will you never have done revolving it all in your poor mind?” What “it all” means is open for interpretation.
Kuenzer illustrates the gravitas and discipline necessary for this one-woman play. She is restrained to her straight-jacket pose and a certain rhythm; at times, May actually counts out the time slipping away. A confined Kuenzer does a phenomenal job of transforming her face as the dialogue ricochets from mother to daughter.
At the conclusion of Footfalls, the audience is asked to leave the theater during a 15-minute intermission for a “set change.” What you see upon your return for Not I is—wow. The word original does not cover it. Beckett takes reality away from you, like only Beckett can. He blurs the difference between a set and a costume, between poetry and monologue, between a play and a statute—or is it a painting? It is like nothing I have ever seen.
Susan Sargeant is “Mouth.” Yes, a mouth. The spotlight on her red lips, and the lighting of her teeth, are beautiful and effective. What we are treated to is the rapid-fire monologue of Sargeant’s mouth as the actor. Her mouth alone is acting. That actually works. Sargeant’s verbal skills and her intensely focused performance are extraordinary.
We learn about a tiny little thing out into this world before its time. She was indifferently, perhaps even callously, conceived. Her parents are gone, presumably from the beginning. She has not experienced a life of love, and the inadequacies of her existence are perhaps flashing before her eyes.
The monologue is poetic in its cadence and repetition. One interpretation is that a seventy-year old woman has had a health calamity, paralyzing body and mind, and the Mouth is describing the trauma of her re-awakening—into what she awakens is not altogether clear. She has a first thought, a sudden flash, and another thought. Throughout there is an unrelenting buzzing in her skull. Her brain is flickering away on its own. The thoughts are coming at her in waves, and her first thought is that she is being punished for her sins.
There is a poignant description of a life lived with little speech; she brings a bag to the shops and transacts business wordlessly. There are ambiguous recitals of her eruptions of speech, her urge to tell, a scene at court, and her inability to know what she is saying. These references to a speech impediment of sorts are juxtaposed with Sargeant’s hyper-articulate ability to belt out lines at rapid-fire pace. Thus, what relationship does the Mouth have to the person whose consciousness the Mouth is so eloquently describing in micro-second detail? What is the Mouth?
WingSpan has given Dallas the opportunity to experience two serious, rarely performed, and uniquely searing works. If I were Queen of the Universe every performance of this production would be sold out. Okay, if your favorite thing is crash-em-up action movies, then Samuel Beckett, Sargeant, and Kuenzer are probably not going to seduce you with this mind-bending poetry. That said, this production is absolutely not to be missed by Beckett fans, or by serious theater goers who have not experienced Beckett yet. If you miss this, you will probably not see anything as thoroughly original as Not I this year, or even for a very long time.
WingSpan Theatre company
October 3 – 19, 2019, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday Matinees at 2:00 p.m.
The Bath House Cultural Center
521 Lawther Dr., Dallas 75218
For information and Tickets call 214 675-6573 or go to www.wingspantheatre.com.