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Texts for Nothing
By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Anders Cato. Starring Joseph Chaikin. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason, Jan. 18-27.

Joseph Chaikin had left the stage, but the applause kept coming. Mame Hunt, the Magic's artistic director, stepped forward apologetically. "Mr. Chaikin never takes a second curtain call," she explained. "Don't take it personally." Chaikin was a pioneer of avant-garde theater in the 1960s and a frequent collaborator with Sam Shepard. It was at Samuel Beckett's suggestion that Chaikin adapted his Texts for Nothing to the stage in 1981. A stroke in 1984 left Chaikin with aphasia, affecting his ability to talk, but the new peculiarities of his speech only accent Beckett's elliptical prose. He entered costumed in the itinerant uniform of Estragon and Vladimir from Waiting for Godot: a mud-washed overcoat and silver goat whiskers. The character explained that his bowler hat had blown away. A gray reading desk sat on a charcoal riser and a single light bulb hung off center, strangled by its cord and casting a sickly caramel light.

Texts for Nothing is a collection of wandering prose pieces, a soliloquy of questions to the universe. No plot or characters anchor it down; only an impression of meaning can be drawn if you step back, as if from an abstract painting. Beckett's theme is that language is vacuous, but essential. Man has a primal need for a narrative; Beckett's characters are vagrants because they lack a narrative to mold meaning or give direction to their lives. In Beckett's universe, language is a blunt tool, speech a clumsy hand without an opposable thumb.

The word "aphasia" is from the Greek for "without language." Although the absence of meaning was central to Beckett's philosophy, he was particularly sympathetic to Chaikin's circumstance. He wrote a poem for Chaikin, "What Is the Word," one of his last published works. Abruptly, it ends: "What is the word, folly -- ." At the Magic, Chaikin showed himself to be an accomplished and emotional actor still, even as his speech flickered on and off, as if a child was toying with the switch. His affliction was underlined by the audio recordings of his 1981 performance used in the show. (Beckett encouraged the use of tape-recorded voice in the original production.) Chaikin sat patiently in the dark, attentive to his old voice. With the sound distorted through foggy tape hiss, the recording was paradoxically a more dismal and bitter reading than the live performance. When Chaikin himself talked, it was at times a challenge to listen, to watch him wrestle against the lines, the sweat forming on his brow. But he smiled, Beckett's consummate anti-hero. Hope is not extinguished, but it is painful.

-- Julie Chase

The Aspern Papers
By Henry James; adapted by Michael Redgrave. Directed by Tom Ross. Starring Julian Lopez-Morillas, Lorri Holt, and Barbara Oliver. Presented by the Aurora Theater at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. in Berkeley, through Feb. 23. Call (510) 843-4822.

The Aspern Papers suggests that even claustrophobic late-19th-century Jamesian drama can stir up feelings of disquietude in an audience dulled by postmodern glam. Director Tom Ross renders James at his Europhilic best, granting us safe passage back to 1888. Movement is carefully choreographed to make the most of a small space -- a converted room in Julia Morgan's Berkeley City Club -- and exits, entrances, and pauses heighten the dialogue's tension. The lively 1959 adaptation by British actor Michael Redgrave and fine comic performances from the cast let age-old issues go down a treat.

Editor and essayist Henry Jarvis, played by Julian López-Morillas, is a cad who lusts less for women than he does for the elusive letters and manuscript drafts of poet Jeffrey Aspern, which he believes to be hidden somewhere in the Venetian villa inhabited by Miss Tina (Lorri Holt) and her aunt (Barbara Oliver), the elderly Miss Bordereau. Jarvis sports the latest in sartorial uptightness, jackets and pants too snug and too short; he convinces the pair to rent him lodgings in their home, and though they think they're taking advantage by charging an exorbitant rate, he easily outparasites them. Retrieving the uncollected correspondence and exegeticals of America's first great poet, as well as living large in an otherwise inexpensive Italy, is supposed to give meaning to Jarvis' life. "I need a sense of history" and a "feeling of the past," he tells Miss Tina, and only Europe and the Aspern papers can provide it. Even for those fed on Bundy-brow culture and MTV reality, the play's messages ring loud: Be wary of too much object worship and always think twice -- people are less than the gear they sport, and language can mislead. The naive Miss Tina takes Jarvis' sharp parlance as a mark of gentility and overlooks the slips that betray disingenuousness.

In the Aurora's vision of the play, the setting is an intrusive, almost literally tactile element. The turn-of-the-century Hispanoamericano interior transports us away from Berkeley's urine-rich streets. The theater -- a tiny salon much like the one in which the action unfolds -- heightens the effect of the smallest body gesture. Sixty or so seats concentrically fill the room, spilling onto the stage and giving the audience members almost unwanted intimacy with their neighbors; do them a favor and forgo attendance if you aren't in the habit of flossing. We get up close with Jarvis for every stroke of his strangely pubic-seeming beard, and it seems part of the staged action when ladies in the opposite row -- modern-day Miss Tinas and Miss Bordereaus, perhaps -- fine-tune their hearing aids. Is it the play or the stage, or maybe a little of both, that makes this tick? Or is it simply that, as with last year's Jane Austen adaptation mania, we still get a buzz out of traveling back to the land of the dead and white? In a world on the brink of out-postmoderning itself, maybe a blast from the Jamesian past is just what we need.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

The Cryptogram
By David Mamet. Directed by Barbara Damashek. Starring Susan Brecht, Eli Marienthal, and Liam O'Brien. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason, Building D, through Feb. 23. Call 441-8822.

As a 10-year-old did you sit alone in your room flustered by emergent existential crises while your parents had fondue socials in the kitchen? Did you crave parental affection or just toothpick appetizers? Angst is adolescence in David Mamet's The Cryptogram, now running at the Magic Theater. A young boy is lied to, bribed, and drugged with cough syrup, all to get him to sleep as his parents' marriage disintegrates in the living room. But the boy, John, played with prodigal skill by Eli Marienthal, is acutely aware of this decay.

A cryptogram is anything written in cipher; as with Mamet's other plays, the bulk of the meaning here is sunk in subtext, words and images tossed around like poker chips. Mamet is renowned for his optimal use of the word "fuck," but less noticed is his use of obscenity as a smoke screen. "The point," Mamet wrote, "is not to speak the desire but to speak that which is most likely to bring out the desire." In The Cryptogram, agendas aren't hidden behind profanity; they're camouflaged in the courtesy and polite discretion of clipped, 1950s cocktail chatter. Mother figure Donny (Susan Brecht) wears a trim red Betty Crocker dress; she has the robe of warm maternity, but not the emotional generosity, and can't soothe her son's anxiety when her husband abandons them. Consumed with her own frustration, she becomes a harpy in pin curls and capri pants.

Mamet's artificial patter can flatten the best actors. Director Barbara Damashek's production succeeds by letting the actors erupt out of the stylistic tyranny, color outside the lines. The set suggests emotional sterility: Antiseptic white light filters over futuristic leather and lacquer furniture. But Brecht and Liam O'Brien (as family friend Del) litter the landscape with anger and sexuality. The characters are more human, more approachable than the traditional Mamet menagerie of real estate salesmen and petty thieves, and this is one Mamet play where women aren't the alien enemy. The Magic Theater production is a chance to see Mamet's most intimate and esoteric work in a performance that avoids the pounding staccato of his signature style.

-- Julie Chase

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