Twenty-one years ago, Samuel Beckett directed actor Rick Cluchey in his play “Krapp’s Last Tape.” And 21 years later, Cluchey is still performing Krapp in the same hallowed San Quentin Drama Workshop production of that one-character drama, about an old man with a nearly debilitating yet voracious appetite for eating bananas and listening to tapes of his younger, perhaps more vital, self.
Here we are again, stuck in the same old existential void: an uncredited all-black, nearly bare stage with little more than a table, stool and an overhead hanging lamp that will be sent flying “Psycho”-like when Krapp slaps it to much dramatic, if not obvious effect. Over the years, the Workshop’s production of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which is now playing in repertory with their “Beckett’s Women” at the St. Ambrose Arts Center, has had its admirers. There are those who find Cluchey’s performance inspired in its ritualism, and then there are the detractors who see nothing but a mechanical and mannered actor at work. Twenty-one years of performance in the same play will do that to a person. In this case, however, Cluchey is no James Tyrone Sr.
Obviously, Beckett wanted Cluchey’s slow, overly careful striptease peel of the banana skins, as though Krapp were engaged in some Kabuki food fight. Even more deliberate is how the actor grabs his own bathrobe lapels to turn himself away from the tape recorder and literally lift himself off the stool for yet another tour of the back room and a little libation.
The key here to Beckett’s intentions is not so much in Cluchey’s present-day performance but rather the old tapes themselves, which actually date back to 1977, when they were recorded in West Berlin under the original direction of Beckett. On the tapes, Cluchey/Krapp’s younger voice falls too easily on the ear. The effect is almost hypnotic in its lack of emotion, the over-modulated tones working to parcel out the words as if someone had set the actor’s tongue to a metronome. This is no exaggeration: He sounds just like the computer Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Only less nice. There’s an odd, almost lascivious chuckle at one point.
While the young Krapp drones on about a woman, a sexual encounter and a possible but failed love affair, the old Krapp clutches the tape recorder to his chest and listens with full-hearted attention one more time to a tape he recorded three decades ago on his 39th birthday.
Cluchey listens magnificently. His movements may be ritualistic or mechanical, depending upon your point of view, but there is no question as to the incredible animation he brings to the primary action of this drama: He hears the way some actors belt out a song, or dance, or throw a punch on stage — with total immersion and commitment.
Other actors have given that younger voice real fire. Cluchey’s interpretation rejects the hope of some sentimental, missed opportunity in the character’s past. That’s just one interpretation of the play, of course, but in this case, it just happens to be the playwright’s. And with that Beckett lives up to his reputation as the century’s foremost pessimist.