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Dog Show has the pedigree of pure Beckett

Having recently seen the same Samuel Beckett one-act performed by two different Dallas theater companies for two different audiences, a comparison is in order--and would be particularly helpful for neophyte theatergoers.

Three weeks back, a large group of people, mostly heterosexual couples, attended a performance of Bucket Productions' For Whom the Bucket Tolls, a trio of short plays that included Beckett's mournful, loopy one-man piece Krapp's Last Tape. The actor who played the old man Krapp wasn't bad, although his obvious youth was distracting in so frail and withered a character.

Krapp's Last Tape consists of an elderly man who plays reel-to-reel recordings he'd made as a diary of his youth. He pauses to shuffle offstage for swigs of (presumably) liquor, eat bananas, and muse aloud about what an ass he'd been as a lad, especially in the department of love.

The Bucket Productions' Krapp was well-directed enough that the ludicrous repetition vibrated the funny bones of several women in the group of couples. One dark-haired woman in particular experienced fits of giggles that she worked hard, and with some embarrassment, to stifle. I got the feeling she hadn't attended much live theater, yet her reaction was much closer to what Beckett sought during his lifetime than was the rest of the audience's. Others sat in uncomfortable silence, either genuinely unamused or afraid to laugh because it would somehow reveal an inability to comprehend "serious theater," the equivalent of checking their teeth in the silverware at a dinner party thrown by Julia Child.

Thankfully, there was a raucous, receptive audience for the opening night performance of Krapp's Last Tape in Dog Show, the trio of short Beckett plays being performed by the newly expanded Kitchen Dog Theater. The ticket-buyers that night were more attuned to the comedic motivation behind the playwright's rapid-fire non sequiturs, but a big part of that was Lynn Mathis' surly, sorrowful turn as the old man who can't leave behind a love that died yesterday. The character's monumental loneliness echoes in the grand gestures with which he renders the most mundane (but dependable) rituals of his flickering life; I've rarely seen an actor on a Dallas stage look at another actor as reverentially as Mathis gazed upon his beloved banana.

If the Nobel Prize-winning, Irish-born, Paris-dwelling Samuel Beckett intimidates you but you're wondering what all the fuss is about, by all means see Dog Show. Kitchen Dog calls its version of these three plays an "existential cabaret," a phrase that nicely embodies the spirit of pure entertainment that informs these brisk, uncluttered one-acts. Don't stress out, and remember one thing--Beckett means exactly what he's saying to you, and no more. It's not complexity or obscurity that trips us up when we watch Beckett, it's the man's terrifying simplicity. We hunt for hidden agendas where none exist, and project frustration at our own inability to think so elementally onto the straw bogeyman I previously referred to as "serious theater."

As directed by the Dog's artistic director Dan Day, Krapp's Last Tape is appropriately the most funereal of the evening's trio. Beckett's wind-up toy of a protagonist is made uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has the habit of replaying the conversation from failed dates or tearful breakups, trying to imagine what different word or inflection would have altered fate. Krapp remembers the moment they knew it was over down to every grueling detail--the glinting sun, the sway of the boat they rode as it ended--because he has hellishly preserved it in the original voice of his heartbroken youth.

Act Without Words II, the middle play in the show, is the most unabashedly comic. Bill Lengfelder directs cherub-faced Tina Parker and Aaron Ginsburg like a brother-sister vaudeville team. Beckett's brand of vaudeville, however, isn't content to exploit humorous situations. The whole cycle of life has got to be lampooned. Hence, Act Without Words II follows the mute exploits of A (Parker) and B (Ginsburg), two Everyschlubs who crawl out of covers (wombs), confront the day (life) with rituals successful and un-, then crawl back into their sacks (shrouds). The cheerfully efficient B greets the world more successfully than slovenly A, whose strained attempts at eating, dressing, and finally prayer are conveyed nicely by Parker.

I have deliberately reviewed these Beckett one-acts in reverse order to finish with the first and, for me, most successful of the threesome. Not I, as directed by sometime Dallas Theater Center actress and recent Kitchen Dog addition Sheriden Thomas, sprays you rat-a-tat-tat with furious verbal slapstick you're almost unprepared to handle. Given the hysteria-pitched, rising and falling rhythm of the terrific solo vocal performance by Shelly Tharp, I'm tempted to suggest Kitchen Dog switch the first and third acts. But when you consider the fine-tuned attention that every Beckett piece requires, I'm not sure the overall impact of the evening would change that much, anyway.

During the intermission that immediately followed it, Not I prompted one woman in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary's concession line to remark with a brooding hush: "My brother's schizophrenic. He hears voices in his head. I'll bet that's how it is for him."

Not I is a continuous monologue spoken by a disembodied mouth (Tharp behind black screen) and its owner (Tina Parker), a silent woman who stands with her back to the audience and her head covered. Even as the mouth pours out a maniacal, contradictory stream of memories from the life of her owner, the owner (called by Beckett "the auditor") wordlessly reprimands the mouth with reminders of things it would rather not speak--things, of course, we will never hear, because the auditor is mute and the mouth is stubborn. Who's controlling whom? The one-sided bickering becomes hilarious and chilling at the same time.

Thanks to Shelly Tharp, Sheriden Thomas, and Tina Parker, Dog Show gave me a nightmare--but an oddly pleasurable, personally instructive one. Tharp, Thomas, and Parker are all new members of the Kitchen Dog troupe, which has expanded from 4 to 12. The upcoming season will find these dozen performers trading acting and directing chores to forge highly individual visions of new and classic plays. If Dog Show is a true taste of what's coming, I look forward to Kitchen Dog sniffing around my dreams again.

Dog Show runs through June 22. Call 953-1055.

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