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Krapp’s Last Tape: Jewel Theatre and Whitworth Exhale

   A cheap overhead lamp pours merciless lumens over every moth-eaten feature, every brow-furrow and sag of eyebags, illuminates every yellowed-gray frizz of hair and shirtstain of the old man sitting at the table, center stage.  Thinking….thinking…too busy thinking to arrange his features inside this intensely affectless stillness, he—the entire cast of the one-person play—gazes silent and unseeing into the audience. Is he indeed thinking?

We in the dark settled down nicely as soon as the house lights faded to black. Trained perhaps by John Cage in his time at UCSC, or by early performance artists who required mindful observation of apparent inaction for unreasonably extended periods, audiences shifting from bun to bun in a struggle between boredom and expectation, waiting for the point, or indeed waiting, sometimes, for anything, anything…But tonight there’s nary a squeak nor rustle from the full house at the Jewel Theatre Company’s presentation of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Center Stage in Santa Cruz.

It’s Beckett we’re waiting for, and Paul Whitworth—proving that audiences will pay to watch this actor think. Clever audiences, Whitworth always pays off.  And over the years, Jewel Theatre Company has become a safe bet, a company whose artistic risk-taking is as consistent as its theatrical memory-making.

Samuel Beckett’s is a tight 43 minutes: The long stillness and silence at the start contribute much, upon reflection. We the audience get a good long curious uninterrupted look at this disintegration of a man before us—his eyebrow could twitch (they don’t)—and we’d wonder about the meaning, so creating an acute level of audience attention. Every detail—absent movement—is inspected for weight and depth and narrative possibilities. 

Such audience conditioning is important, because we find quite soon that we won’t be carried along in the action; the plot does not move forward, no-one is transformed and what does, in fact, evolve through the course of the play is not Krapp but the audience. In this sucking vortex of a character Whitworth leads us through a minimalist tale that totters just on-the-edge between poetry or statistics, and the rants of those souls on the street who’ve been alone way too long and spent too much time thinking the same thoughts. With such intensity of embodiment, with the precision of a mime, Whitworth spits out Krapp’s thoughts, flays that pale skin to take us inside Krapp seeing, hearing, thinking, and, this night, remembering himself as he was, listening to the recording of a birthday tape of 30 years ago at the age of 69.

There we are, then. Nothing happens.

Or rather, everything happens as Whitworth is Krapp and Krapp is immersed in his earlier self. But Whitworth gives us Krapp without judgement. Is he pathetic? No, he’s defiant. In showing us this crusty, cynical, isolated mess of a man observing an annual ritual with what is no doubt his only dependable companion—himself in time— his words stab insouciantly at his youthful illusions and applaud his own clever escapes from the snares of society. Whitworth reels us into this character he and Beckett have created, and lays him bare, grazes the skin of our common foolish aspirations so that, as unattractive as he may be, we see ourselves.

Krapps Last Tape was performed May-June 2011, at Jewel Theater, Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz.