Cygnus Ensemble beautifully performs original musical compositions to one-acts by Samuel Beckett.
There’s an inherent musicality to the language of Samuel Beckett, which makes the idea of pairing three of his short works with original music compositions an intriguing one. In Sounding Beckett, now at Classic Stage Company, the Cygnus Ensemble beautifully performs these musical works, but the connections to the Beckett one-acts also presented are not always clear.
The most successful pairing comes first. Actress Holly Twyford performs “Footfalls,” but rather than picking up her feet and walking, she shuffles along in a rhythmic pattern that creates a visible mark on the bare black stage. Her character is someone who has been taking care of her ailing mother (voiced by a pre-recorded Kathleen Chalfant), and has never really gotten to live her own life. She paces incessantly, and there’s a frustration and sadness to both her movements and her prolonged moments of stillness.
Composer Chester Biscardi echoes these qualities in the brief instrumental piece that follows. There’s a haunting, ethereal sound to the music, and the occasional percussive beat that one of the musicians strikes on the wooden body of his instrument calls to mind the footfalls within Beckett’s play.
The next piece of the evening is “Ohio Impromptu,” in which Ted van Griethuysen performs the role of Reader, with Philip Goodwin as Listener. The men sit at a table, and both their white wigs and their occasional mimicked movements make it seem as if they are perhaps variations on the same individual. Goodwin says nothing, but communicates volumes with his eyes, as well as with the occasional knocks on the table that he makes to signal van Griethuysen to stop and repeat something he was saying, or to continue with what he was reading.
Scott Johnson’s composition, “Last Time Told” is meant as a response to “ Ohio Impromptu,” yet its lively rhythm seems at odds with the more stately Beckett piece that preceded it.
The final play of the evening is “Catastrophe,” and is the strongest of the acted performances. Goodwin plays the Director, who is dictating the way the Protagonist (van Griethuysen) is to look on stage. The Director’s chipper female assistant (Twyford) makes notes, or follows his orders by manipulating van Griethuysen’s body. The play itself serves as a metaphor for political dictatorship and the suppression of the individual. At the end, the Protagonist defies the Director’s orders and looks up, his gaze appearing as a challenge to authority. Sounding Beckett director Joy Zinoman goes one step farther than the playwright, and also has van Griethuysen raise his right arm in a gesture that suggests revolution.
And one might think that would be the quality of David Glaser’s response to “Catastrophe.” Instead, his musical composition “I Make a Note” is pleasant enough but doesn’t seem to support or enhance what we just saw, and in fact dilutes the final, striking image that ended the play.
All performances of Sounding Beckett feature “J’attendrai,” an overture composed by Cygnus Ensemble founder William Anderson that sets the mood for the show. But the other musical works described here will only be repeated once more on September 23. Additional performances (September 21, 22) will have different composers (Laura Schwendinger, John Halle, Laura Kaminsky) interpreting the three Beckett works, and it’s possible they may find other ways of connecting to the playwright’s text.