Lost Beckett, from a dustbin in Paris, comes to the Fringe--dodging the law. Kathryn Walat talks to the Neo-Futurist and Theater Oobleck offenders.
[Editor's Note: This feature originally appeared on TheaterMania.com in August 2000, when The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett... debuted at the New York Fringe Festival. The show recently reopened at the Present Company Theatorium, where it will play until February 3.]
The complete title of the Neo-Futurists and Theater Oobleck's Fringe show is: The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (partially burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!" Got that?
"This is my fourth year at the Fringe," says Danny Thompson, a founding member of Theater Oobleck, from a pay phone at a Sunoco station someplace in between New York and Vermont, where The Complete Lost Works... recently completed a sold-out run. "You've really got to have something catchy right off the bat. Most people don't even look at every title. This title really catches attention."
And these veterans of the New York International Fringe Festival and the Chicago experimental theater circuit know what they're talking about. The Neo-Futurists' Kafka-inspired K. won writer/director Greg Allen the Directing Award in the 1997 Fringe, and Urinetown! (the Musical) (by another Neo-Futurist) packed in daring audiences last year. Already The Complete Lost Works... is generating buzz, from Beckett fans familiar with the detailed directives of his scripts and from those attracted--or distracted--by the show's lengthy title. Confused intrigue seems to be the show's strategy for success on the Fringe.
"We follow Mr. Beckett's directives as explicitly as possible," explains Greg Allen, a Neo-Futurists founding member, over the phone from their home base in Chicago. "The three of us--Danny Thompson, Ben Schneider, and myself--really execute the entire evening... Ben Schneider is the principle Beckett performer throughout the piece, and Danny and I kind of act as the emcees. Danny also performs Happy Happy Bunny Visits Sad Sad Owl, which is the first known dramatic Beckett work--written at age seven--and is presented in its original puppet staging.
"And so, Danny performs that with the puppets, previously known as 'his things.' He has these little stuffed animals and various, ah, I don't know, characters? Not really characters..." Friends? "Yes, there you go. Danny and his friends execute Happy Happy Bunny Visits Sad Sad Owl. And I perform the monologue 'Not Me'. And then Ben is slated with performing all of the other pieces, although he does not speak. He has one line--one word, which is repeated." Which word is that? "More." And where did you really find these plays? "In Paris. In a dustbin."
Schneider corroborates. "It's presenting these plays that we found, which we think are Beckett's lost words. That's our story, and we're sticking to it," he insists. "It's a combination of [being] reverent and taking the piss out of him."
But then, paradoxical combination is not altogether foreign to Schneider and Thompson, the Theater Oobleck pair. "The last show that Danny and I did together was called Necessity, which is a play that Danny wrote, and it's a completely historically inaccurate account of Thomas Edison's life, in which he begins the play on a chain gang, and proceeds to kill a number of people," Schneider describes. "It involves all these famous characters from history, and everything that is historically inaccurate is actually based on something that is historically true."
According to Allen, "There's lots of cross-pollination between the experimental theater companies in Chicago," the context in which these shows were created. The Neo-Futurists are perhaps best known for their Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a show conceived and directed by Allen, written and performed by an eight-person ensemble, and billed as "an ever-changing attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes." Since the Too Much Light... (which was most recently performed in New York at the Present Company Theatorium in April and currently runs weekends in Chicago) began in 1988, Allen estimates they've created over 3,700 of plays--100 hours of theater.
"There's lots of elements of randomness to the shows," Allen says. "They are performed in a random order, there's a random admission, and then someone rolls a die on stage at the end of the Friday and Sunday night shows, and the total of the two rolls is the number of new plays we have to create for the coming week. So there's an element of planned obsolescence, of constant turnover--constant change, constant challenge to reflect our own lives on stage as directly as possible."
And can Fringe audiences expect to see their lives reflected on stage in The Complete Lost Works...? "Yes, because it's very much tied up in the legal ramifications of trying to perform Beckett's work," Allen says. "Ever since his death, people have been unearthing scripts from who-knows-where. Here's a guy whose entire life was dedicated to presenting the scripts exactly the way he wanted them--or he'd take his name off of them--and then he dies, and anything with Samuel Beckett's saliva on it get published. And so this is very much speaking to that by us--in the face of the legal proceedings--continuing to perform these shows."
The legal ramifications to which Allen refers "are various legal attacks on the show, during the show, where various threats from the Samuel Beckett estate [arrive]... implicating the audience as well for their participation. And without divulging too much, that source is ultimately revealed."
But, without divulging too much, where exactly did they find these plays? Thompson's story backs up that of Allen and Schneider. "We found them in a dustbin...while we were in Paris...at some point," Thompson hesitates. "Greg's better with the story. He loves Paris in the springtime--but that's not necessarily when we found them."