Chicago Theatre Review
Raging Against the Dying of the Light
Chewing on Beckett – Artemisia
Somewhere in a Dystopian wasteland, that reminds us of the settings from Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” and “Waiting for Godot,” two women wander through an ashen gray landscape. They stumble over an accumulation of trash and discarded electronics in a land pockmarked by garbage, cans of refuse and junk, an abandoned shopping cart and an old picnic table. They babble endlessly in a familiar language that makes vague sense, but it sounds more like pieces of sentences and words stuck merely together. The cumulative effect is that of a patient, but strained relationship between two intelligent women who share an understanding and empathy.
Directed with grace and a distinctly appropriate, absurd style by Steve Scott, Diane Dorsey plays a displaced college professor named Eloise, nicked Lolo. The professor, once a revered and learned lady and an expert on Samuel Beckett, has become disoriented, unwell and riddled by the effects of dementia. She’s accompanied and attended by Viola, her former, devoted student, played with loving sensitivity by Julie Proudfoot. She keeps Lolo on track by challenging her with mental exercises and intellectual debates, evoking recollections and forgotten memories from their past that instantly transport Eloise back to the academic she’d once been.
Into this nightmarish landscape wander Paola and Becky. Desperately in search of fire, water and food, this mother and daughter attempt to distract and divert Viola and Eloise in the hopes of procuring what they need to survive. An Old Woman, whose job it seems is to police the area, pays two visits to the women, making sure they aren’t overstepping their boundaries. In the second act, a possibly pregnant Becky is wheeled into the trash heap in a child’s wagon by her mother. After another dramatic exchange of nonsense dialogue with Lolo and Viola, mother and daughter depart once more, with Becky still writhing in pain.
The scene that follows is the most intellectually stimulating and fascinating. During it, the roles between teacher and student see-saw back and forth. A discourse about Beckett that’s truly the heart of this piece brings the play to its conclusion, arguing about James Joyce’s influence on and relationship with the playwright. As Lolo and Viola debate, lament and contemplate suicide, they’re ultimately left alone together once again, as the light begins to fail and the play comes to an end.
Kudos to playwright Ed Proudfoot who’s skillfully captured the language and all the bleakness and tragicomedy of human existence that’s so integral to the plays of Samuel Beckett. He’s balanced the overwhelming despair against just the right amount of black comedy, while keeping the play and its small cast of characters as minimal as the absurdist Irish playwright.
Scenic designer Eric Luchen has managed to create the perfect landscape for Proudfoot’s homage to Beckett. All gray and strewn with litter, the tiny, intimate playing area resembles a confined ash heap with an outdoor table as its centerpiece. Olivia Crary has costumed her two main characters in gray jumpsuits layered over more gray underthings that complement Luchen’s scenery, becoming almost an extension of the barren, scorched landscape. Matthew Carney’s lighting plot keeps the characters in flickering shadow, allowing the light to ebb and flow, as dictated by the script; and Kallie Rolison has created a sound palate that adds as much gloom and melancholy as the dialogue.
Steve Scott, one of Chicago’s most respected directors, once again works his magic with this production. He’s taken his vast experience with and knowledge of Beckett’s works and created a brand new performance that pays tribute to the poetic Theatre of the Absurd At the same time he’s made something quite unique. Drawing out the rage, the quiet moments, the compactness balanced by moments of humor and tenderness are the mark of a director who knows his craft.
Scott’s actors, particularly Diane Dorsey as Lolo, are remarkable. Ms. Dorsey and Julie Proudfoot, as Viola, have volumes of confusing, perplexing dialogue to memorize and put forth that must, somehow make sense and be understood. In this, Scott’s actors are all superior. Molly Lyons’ viciously maternal Paola and Patty Malaney’s whiny, wily and conniving Becky are both very good and hold their own with Dorsey and Proudfoot. Millie Hurley also has her humorous moments as the Old Woman.
In a play that’s difficult to describe, yet leaves its audience distinctly grim and gloomy by the end of two hours, Steve Scott and his cast have done well paying homage to Samuel Beckett. They may have chewed on the Absurdist’s words and they’ve spat forth his mood, ideas and themes with authority and dignity. As the play ends we’re left with the image of two strong women who are raging against the dying of the light and will go on, against all odds, to live another day in this bleak, barren landscape of hopelessness.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 20-June 12 by Artemisia at the Frontier Theatre, 1106 W Thorndale, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the door or by going to www.ArtemisiaTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.