Generally speaking, Beckett is associated with a handful of literary odds and ends: Absurdist Theater, some poetry, silent t’s. He’s become a figurehead in a niche more rapt in existential conundrum than political statement.
But in CSU’s new production of Catastrophe, audiences will get to see an overlooked aspect of the author’s often cherry-picked career – Beckett, the passionate and outspoken activist.
One of his last plays, Catastrophe was written as a protest piece for an imprisoned colleague, and it sought to lambaste the hypocritical authoritarian government occupying the forcibly-Siamesed nation of Czechoslovakia. And while the play was originally born of Cold War antagonism, director and Beckett scholar Eric Prince says modern audiences will find more than a few parallels with current political events.
Prince chose the play in part because of the unrest he was seeing in the Fort Collins community over the Bush Administration.
“There’s a lot of anger,” Prince said, “all the debate going on about the Iraqi War and human rights. A lot of things are going on at the moment from different artists, not just theater, but poets, dance companies, musicians. There’s a lot of comment, there’s a lot of anger, and there’s a lot of debate. As an artist and a director, I wanted to do something that made some kind of statement, that had something to say about the war.”
Prince first saw Catastrophe in a 1989 production in London.
“When I saw it, I was really amazed at how powerful it was. On the page it doesn’t look like much . the whole play only lasts fifteen minutes. But nevertheless, it packs a punch,” he said.
Years later, he would receive a chilling reminder of the play’s central character, a black clad figure on a pedestal, when photos were released of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
“When I saw that photograph – that was Catastrophe. That was the image of the play. We use it for the poster, and it’s not gratuitous; Beckett wrote about a man, dressed in black, on a pedestal, being manipulated.”
The production, taking place in the studio theatre of the University Center for the Performing Arts, Sept. 27-29 at 8 p.m., should prove to be a unique theater-going experience, as it utilizes several different multimedia elements to flesh the performance out into an evening, not the least of those elements being local musician Barbara Clark’s two original songs, composed specifically for and inspired by the play.
The most striking thing about the production, though, is that it’s not one, but two performances; one in English, one in Spanish, both subtly tweaked to play off the other and provide even those fluent in only one language insight into the sister-staging.
“Here in Fort Collins, there’s a lot said about how important our Hispanic community is,” Prince says, “but it’s lip service, we don’t really do a lot.”
So he sought out Jose Luis Suarez-Garcia, a fellow CSU professor and an expert in Spanish theater, to collaborate on the project.
Suarez-Garcia produced his own original translation, and the result is the first ever back-to-back production of Catastrophe in English and Spanish. Which isn’t bad for play originally written in French.
“It’s pretty cool for us, but it’s also to actually be inclusive of our Hispanic community. Spanish-speaking members of the audience can come and not have to worry about language barriers.”
The twin performances vary in a multitude of ways, from costuming, to cast, to wildly different methods of acting the same role.
Sam Salas, a veteran actor and the only cast member to be in both versions, said the play serves an important function by taking theater patrons out of their comfort zone.
“Because it’s a bilingual program, it puts the challenge onto the audience. Yes, you can see it in English, but do you still understand it in another language? Do you still get the same feeling and atmosphere from the show when the dynamics are completely different? I feel that it’s good to have people be aware of other cultures, not just their own all the time.”
In fact, those currently in the unilingual gutter may find they come away with a heightened appreciation for the acting, as the show’s distinctive structure and immediacy make for a unique showcase of what the actors and actresses do beyond just reciting lines.
The importance of delivery, physicality, and weighted silence becomes much more discernable when you don’t understand the words but know what they mean. It allows an emphasis on how things are said, rather than what is said.
Fine stagecraft aside, cast and crew are hoping to get across to audiences a bit of Beckett’s activist spirit.
“In its own small, almost ironic, and at times even humorous way, it actually says something universal about the need to resist authoritarianism,” said Prince.
Though it’s likely to be received as another partisan cheap shot in CSU’s current highly charged political atmosphere, Prince assures that the message is one of shared humanity.
“I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. This is a universal kind of play with a universal message, regardless of anybody’s politics. Under what circumstances is it right to do the kind of thing that happened at Abu Ghraib?”
Staff writer Ryan Nowell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
University Center for the Performing Arts, 1400 Remington
September 27th, 28th, 29th. 8pm
Tickets are $11, $7 for students