Grant James Varjas in Catastrophe
(© Jon Kandel)
Grant James Varjas in Catastrophe
(© Jon Kandel)
Resonance Ensemble's Reflections: An Evening of Short Plays is, as so many compendiums are, a decidedly mixed bag. Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe and Anton Chekhov's Swan Song are done with care and thought; Michael Feingold's new play What Happened Then has interest and originality; while the remaining two works, Compromise by Ian Strasfogel, and Their Town by Alvin Eng, simply do not succeed as engaging theater. Eric Parness directs all five plays, and his skills and that of the actors seem at the mercy of the quality of the writing.

Strasfogel's work not only derives from Beckett's play, it literally bookends it. A vampy producer (Christine Verleny) coaxes a well-meaning director (Bill Fairbairn, appealingly low-key) to present Catastrophe with contemporary relevance: "Darfur!" she suggests. When the director protests that the play was written for Vaclav Havel, the producer castigates him, praising JoAnne Akalaitis' controversial presentation of Beckett's Endgame set in a subway station. While they have this conversation, a statue of Beckett (David Arthur Bachrach) mugs his responses of shock, anger, and approval. Unfortunately, it's a one-note joke for both Beckett fans and theater insiders.

So much more subtle and appealing is the Beckett work itself, in which a director (Bachrach) and an assistant (Nicole Godino) critique the protagonist (Grant James Varjas), a live man cruelly being physically re-arranged each time the director gives an instruction to whiten the hand or bow the head. The work is chilling, oblique, and powerful.

Surprisingly, rather than taking a break there, the first half plows on through Eng's play, in which Harry Cloud (Todd Butera) and Terry Cave (Bill Fairbairn) meet up in limbo and exchange stories and recriminations. The derivative references to Thornton Wilder's Our Town are embarrassing and ineffective and the talky yawner lacks the needed Twilight Zone-esque surprise to make it satisfying.

Fortunately, things pick up after intermission with the delightfully performed Swan Song, in which Fairbairn struts his stuff as a drunken, maudlin actor, Vasili Svietlovidoff, who is locked in the theatre by accident, and Bachrach is pitch-perfect as fawning, anxious dresser Nikita Ivanitch. Not much "happens," but it's a delight to watch an old actor ham it up, take on death, recite Shakespeare, and face the future.

Feingold's work strangely blends existential reflection with campfire story. In the eighteenth century, Andrew Connor (Varjas), an Englishman working for the Governor in Cuba, unexpectedly meets the man for whose "murder" he was abortively hanged: Richard McPherson (Butera), who was actually pressed into the service of a pirate gang. The two men make plans to return to England to clear Connor's name. In the next scene, which takes place many years later, Connor tries to convince McPherson's niece (Godino) of the tale, since McPherson mysteriously never arrived back in England. While the play ultimately becomes repetitive and over-ruminative, the actors acquit themselves very well.