Theater review: Krapp's Last Tape & The Zoo Story at The Sublime Theater
1960 has never seemed so fresh. It was then that Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story first appeared off-Broadway as a double billing. And now through March 23, that theatrical power couple is reunited courtesy of the newish Sublime Theater.
Helmed by director Henry Williamson III, this classic pair of mid-20th century black comedies is given a new lease on life. Stripped down to their barest essentials and animated by three powerhouse performances, Krapp’s Last Tape and The Zoo Story are not to be missed — but they are not for the faint of heart.
Beckett, when he wasn’t putting people in trashcans and basically inventing absurdist drama, penned Krapp’s Last Tape, a one-man meditation on death, love, and the dreams we let slip away. It is heartbreakingly sad and comically absurd, sometimes all at once.
The key to its success in this production is the remarkable performance of Steven Samuels, who is also Sublime’s Producing Artistic Director.
As the titular Krapp, Samuels is a misanthropic old codger who manages to be likable despite his harsh view of the world (and himself). The premise is that Krapp has made an audio diary on each of his birthdays, stretching back decades. He is now preparing to record his latest, and, apparently, his last such tape. The hard emotional shell he has built around himself over the years begins to crumble as he listens to himself, from decades past, describe an old lover’s eyes and the hopes he once held for happiness.
What really makes Krapp’s Last Tape special is the care with which every small moment of the play is treated. From eating not one but two bananas at the beginning to looking through drawers and plugging in the tape recorder, Samuels fully inhabits each little beat.
At the same time, director Williamson is not afraid to take it slow. The show opens with three minutes of stillness, as Krapp stares at the audience and the lights come up at a molasses pace. Another ten minutes go by without a word being spoken. Samuels’ precision and Williamson’s confidence help engender a fully realized world on stage, a remarkable feat given that there is zero set, two light cues, a single actor, and a very weird script. It is a masterclass in theater-making.
Speaking of weird scripts, Act II of Sublime’s double feature is The Zoo Story. Playwright Albee, a giant of mid-century American drama, is above all a master of tension. This talent would find its fullest expression in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but is clearly shown in Zoo Story as well, his first major work.
A two-hander about two men from different walks of life who engage in an increasingly high-stakes conversation in Central Park, Zoo Story, like Krapp’s Last Tape, is almost fully reliant on the talents of its actors to keep the show engaging. Luckily, this production stars Scott Fisher and Art Moore, who both offer interesting, funny, and fleshed-out characters.
As the complacently middle-class Peter, Moore is appropriately awkward and initially hesitant when the stranger Jerry begins talking to him out of nowhere. One of the big questions at the heart of Zoo Story is why Peter doesn’t simply leave as Jerry peppers him with increasingly personal and confrontational questions. Moore seems to provide an answer with his performance’s undertone of desperation and loneliness. Despite the discomfort of the conversation, it is worth it simply for the authentic human connection.
Meanwhile, Fisher is a tour-de-force as Jerry, the unstable and possibly sociopathic drifter who is surely one of the most difficult in the American canon. Fisher makes it look easy, leaning in to the comedy and the strangely formal way of speaking that is Jerry’s oeuvre. The audience was rolling in the aisles with laughter — until they definitely weren’t.
As with Krapp, director Williamson is meticulous with each moment in the script. The subtle power dynamics and abruptly altered emotional tone of Zoo Story is handled with adroit control. It is almost more like watching a dance than a typical play.
In any case, the emotional crescendo that is so critical to making Zoo Story work is pitch-perfect in this production. You could almost hear the expressions of shock on the audience as the play reached its devastating conclusion.
Krapp’s Last Tape and The Zoo Story runs through March 23, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St. in Asheville. For tickets and more information, visit The Sublime Theater Facebook page.
(Photos: Elissa Peragine/The Sublime Theater)