On Friday, Anton’s Well Theater Company filled St. Alban’s Episcopal Church with eerie blue lighting, the sound of horses’ hooves and plenty of Beckett-esque babble during its performance of three lesser-known shorts by Samuel Beckett.
With shows staged all over the East Bay, the Anton’s Well Theater Company’s creative flexibility and intimate performances allow the group to stage shows that may be too risky to put on at bigger theater companies. While these Beckett shows might not be at the top of the pile for theater companies looking to make a hefty profit, Anton’s Well provides the opportunity for Beckett fans to see these rarely produced shows until March 21.
The program, all directed by Robert Estes, features the short plays “A Piece of Monologue,” “Embers” and “All That Fall.” The latter two shows were originally radio broadcasts, and have now been reimagined as stage productions.
The first work, “A Piece of Monologue,” was commissioned as a play about death, but all three works of the evening hold a similarly macabre tone. The church’s high ceilings give the Speaker (Keith Jefferds) the voice of God during his performance, booming through the space. Rather than hindering the atmosphere, the creative staging in the church amplifies the play’s themes, offering the actors another dimension. Lit with greens and blues while wearing a white dressing gown, the Speaker muses about the agony of birth and, what’s more, the agony of living.
With the show, Anton’s Well re-emphasizes its knack for assembling some of the most talented actors in the area in its experimental programming. In “Embers,” Brian Levi and Sarah Elizabeth carry the show as Henry and Ada, respectively. During the show, Henry calls out to his wife’s spirit over the unending sound of crashing waves threatening to drown him out. While the actors are separated by the stage’s uneven levels and the thematic real world versus spirit world, they still remain perceptibly connected.
“All That Fall” brings comedic elements to the program as Mrs. Rooney (Gigi Benson) struggles to pick her husband up from the train station. Aided by ample sound effects and minimal staging, the story is told in a manner similar to how one might have heard it on the radio when it was originally broadcast in the 1950s. The show makes use of sounds to depict everything from the clomping of horses’ hooves to the coming and going of trains, all providing the soundtrack to the performance’s overwhelming feeling of unease just under the surface.
Staging three Beckett pieces does turn out to be a little too ambitious, as the showtime runs close to three hours. For absurdist works like those of Beckett, which make use of “babble” rather than clear dialogue, attention is vital; once the thread is lost, it cannot be restrung. The final work in the production is a staged reading, meant to mimic its initial radio play format. While the actors bring all the dynamism they can, this part of the program drags a bit, with the audience struggling to maintain its focus.
The beauty of smaller companies like Anton’s Well springing up around the Bay, however, is the ability of these artistic hubs to put on imperfect programs that make the work all the more interesting and engaging for viewers and actors alike.