Alongside the deadly crime of uttering the word "Macbeth" within earshot of any actor, director, or stage manager involved in staging the legendarily cursed Scottish Play, external noise might be the contemporary theater scene's last taboo. Performers have been known to stop midsentence at the sound of an intrusive ringtone; it takes only the honking horn of an angry cabbie outside to ruin the pathos of a tragic death scene inside, while crinkling candy wrappers and hacking coughs can sometimes cause brawls in the stalls.
So it's strange to go to a play and find yourself intrigued rather than irritated by the various bursts of white noise coming from beyond the proscenium. The Cutting Ball Theater Company might mount its production of Krapp's Last Tape in one of the most sonically challenged spaces in San Francisco: the Exit Theatreplex' black box annex, located on a particularly noisy block of Taylor Street. But the intermittent interjections of wailing police sirens and raving Tenderloin residents weirdly enhance the experience of engaging with Samuel Beckett's terse drama.
Depicting a lonely old man's attempt to make sense of his memories by listening to an audio recording he made of himself 30 years previously, Krapp's Last Tape focuses strongly on the way we listen, the relationship between hearing and memory, and the primacy of sound in the waning moments of our time on Earth. Just as the end of human life usually announces its arrival through a gradual shutting down of the body's physical capabilities — beginning, in many cases, with the loss of mobility before progressing through reduced eyesight and hearing loss — so Beckett's plays more or less mark a slow fade toward oblivion, each one inching closer to the grave than the last.
Running at just 45 minutes and featuring only one actor and a series of prerecorded monologues, Krapp's Last Tape, published in 1958, presages the desolate tautness of many of Beckett's subsequent works both in terms of its turning away from the full-length, dialogue-based, multicharacter format of plays like Endgame (1957) and Waiting for Godot (1952) and its preoccupation with the incorporeal. Krapp's Last Tape looms large over such works as Not I (1972), in which a disembodied mouth spews a stream of gibberish and half-remembered memories at a shadowy "Auditor" on a blackened stage; Rockaby (1980), in which an elderly woman rocks herself to her final rest to the sound of her recorded voice; and Breath (1969), which lasts 25 seconds and involves nothing but the sound of someone breathing in and breathing out. In other words, Krapp's Last Tape is the first in a long line of Beckett plays to focus on listening as a conduit to the past and metaphor for the disintegrating, disembodied self.
Hampered by a pronounced gait, the curmudgeonly 69-year-old drunkard and failed writer at the center of Krapp's Last Tape has all but lost the physical agility he once had. Krapp's clownlike close encounter with a discarded banana skin in the opening beat of the play signifies the decrepit state of his body. His eyesight is about to go, too — he has to peer closely at every object he picks up to decipher its identity. Krapp is, in essence, a creature reduced to relying on the more basic senses. We see him pick up a banana and fondle it lasciviously before popping it in his mouth. Most pervasively of all, the character spends the better part of his time sitting still in the middle of a darkened stage, cocking his ears intently to the sound of his voice.
In Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose's sensitive production, the ears, not the eyes, serve as pathways to the soul. The most radical innovation Melrose has made is the use of two different actors — Paul Gerrior as the 69-year-old Krapp and David Sinaiko as the recorded voice of the 39-year-old Krapp — to deliver Beckett's text. Their voices are extremely different. While Gerrior possesses a sonorous, Richard Burtonlike baritone that belies his character's advanced age and frail demeanor, Sinaiko's higher-pitched tenor is reedy and almost lyrical. The vocal contrast creates a strong distancing effect, since the voice of the man standing before us onstage bears so little resemblance to that of his younger self that he appears to be completely divorced from his past. Melrose's aural conceit thus compounds Krapp's inability to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of his youth as he listens to the recording.
Even the play's visual imagery suggests the world of sound, such as the boxes of audiotapes that starkly evoke roadkill when Krapp topples them off the desk. The centerpiece of the set is a large, old-fashioned tape recorder, which he fiddles with at various stages of the drama. From the hiss of the ribbons spinning across the spools to the metallic clicking of the buttons on the machine, the anachronistic technology serves as a sharp reminder to the iTunes generation of the remoteness of the past. Reminiscent of silent-era movie slapstick, Krapp's banana skin stunt (albeit unconvincingly executed by Gerrior the night I saw the show — but then again, it was a preview performance) similarly harks back to a "prehistoric" time in cinema history, when sound and image did not go hand in hand.
As the play unfolds and Krapp's day turns to night, we find our attention turning increasingly away from the visual and toward the aural. Scripted sounds such as the pop of a cork and clink of a glass offstage carry as much weight as the business happening before our eyes. Before we know it, and without realizing it, our ears tune into — and graciously accept — the unscripted noises emanating from the Tenderloin street outside the theater. For once, the noisy drunkards of the real world harmonize perfectly with those of Beckett's imagination.