Tony Isbell is Krapp. I mean that in the best possible sense.
A question that is seldom asked: What does Samuel Beckett's mini-masterpiece Krapp's Last Tapehave in common with poop porn? Consider the "reaction video," a digital-era phenomenon that came of age following the release of Two Girls, One Cup, a pornographic short depicting two women enjoying a pint glass full of human chocolate. Here's a classic reaction video of somebody showing the infamous TG1C clip to their grandmother. As viral content goes, it's horrible. And a stone cold classic.
So, what's the point of this strange comparison? For starters, I want to demystify Beckett, whose work is often characterized as being difficult and detached. Also, in both a formal sense, and as a piece of entertainment, Krapp's Last Tape functions identically to a reaction video. If granny makes you laugh, blush, cringe, or shake your head, you'll have no trouble at all engaging with Krapp. In both cases the comedy and the pathos are are rooted in the relationship between a candid observer and the content stored on his/her technology. Only instead of watching girls go wild, Beckett's titular curmudgeon sits at an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and listens, in real time, to a decades old recording of himself reviewing an even older recording of himself. It's an Escher portrait of a mirror selfie, reducing one man's entire life to 40-minutes of covert clowning. It is, by turns, hilarious and hateful, and in a masterful performance that lives up to that description, Memphis actor Tony Isbell hits every single note, high and low.
Krapp's Last Tape hasn't just aged well, it's become even more resonant in the age of Instagram and #TBT. Contemporary audiences are primed to sympathize with a solitary man interacting with his device.
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Update: I'm in my kitchen writing a review of Krapp's Last Tape. And I need a shave. Also, even though you can't see it, there's an entire bunch of overripe bananas hanging behind my head.
Toward the end of his opening night performance Isbell struggled to detach a spool of tape from Krapp's antique recorder. That's all part of the show. But when the spool finally released something seemingly spontaneous and wonderful happened. The actor reeled backwards, hitting a pendent lamp hanging above his head. Planned or not, the result was more effective than any expensive special effect ever could be. The lamp swung like a mad pendulum, casting the protagonist in light and leaving him in darkness over and over again until, at last, all potential energy was spent. Action, reaction, etc. Visual metaphors don't get much better or more basic than that.
Krapp's Last Tape shares the stage with a neatly packed production of Beckett's rarely-seen micro-drama, Ohio Impromptu. The show's action consists of a stationary "reader," (Adam Remsen) reading a book to a similarly stationary "listener," (Isbell), who remains silent but sometimes knocks to indicate he'd like to hear a passage repeated. Remsen's interpretation is smart and sympathetic but, through no fault of his own, it's never all it could be. Beckett wrote for unique voices. Krapp's Last Tape, for example, was inspired by a radio performance given by British actor Patrick McGee. While Remsen did his job beautifully, Ohio Impromptu cries out — like a strange disembodied mouth — for a special voice that paints vivid pictures in the surrounding blackness. That's why I'm looking forward to a repeat performance when age and experience have seasoned the soft-spoken actor's pipes.
A strange disembodied mouth
My favorite thing about this night of independently produced theater is its origin story. The nutshell: a couple of actors realized they both loved a play that's easy and inexpensive to stage, so they staged the damn thing. Because, why not? More like that, please.
Big things really do come in small packages. I should probably use that line to connect this closing graph to the poop porn in my opening. But, in spite of having just typed the words, "poop porn in my opening," I'm not that kind of critic. It's hard to imagine a more modest production than Krapp's Last Tape and Ohio Impromptu. It's equally hard to imagine a more satisfying night in the theater.