Scott Baker knows how actors pigeonhole the work of Samuel Beckett. "They see these serious situations and the elevated language," he says, "and they think, 'Oh, I must be serious.' This is deadly. [Beckett's] heroes were Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy." Baker should know. His 23-year-old theater company, Performers Under Stress, was named after a Beckett line about pus (a reference so obscure that only one person in 23 years has grasped it without prompting). Sam I Am, the company's first Beckett performance since 2008, weaves together many of the playwright's short plays, including Come and Go, Rough for Radio I and II, and Not I, as well as some prose adapted for the stage.
Baker, who directs and is also one of the 11 ensemble members, brings out the pieces' "vaudevillian" elements by staging the piece as a processional; each scene takes place in its own discrete space in Bindlestiff Studios, and audiences move from place to place. "Since the language is so dense and musical," says Baker, "if you're just sitting there, there's a tendency to be lulled. We don't allow that, ever." Beckett's humor, of course, isn't light; themes common across these selections, says Baker, include "coming into adulthood, people not owning up to their responsibility, and torture." But Baker offers one concession to audiences who are faint at heart: "There is an intermission, so we're not torturing them that much."
Sam I Am starts Friday at 8 p.m. and continues through May 11 at Bindlestiff Studios, 185 Sixth St., S.F. Admission is $10-$20; visit samuelbeckett.eventbrite.com.