IF YOU WERE looking for, say, some fun dinner companions, Samuel Beckett and Nikolai Gogol would probably not be among your first choices. Gogol, like many a clown, led a sad life. In spite of the fact that his work is well remembered for its comic elements, he readily admitted to suffering from relentless melancholy and hypochondria. Beckett, for his part, had a borderline-creepy fascination with psychosis, and probably wasn't much for bright small talk over Pinot Grigio.
Therefore, it's with an extra helping of happy admiration that one emerges from the Jungle Theater's captivating showcase of two playlets by these men. Reminiscent of last season's critical lovefest, Waiting for Godot (same stars, same director, and same playwright in Beckett's case), cynics might assume that Artistic Director Bain Boehlke and company are treading over old, safe ground here, but they'd be wrong: Unlike Godot, which has become a modernist standard, the double bill of Krapp's Last Tape and Diary of a Madman offers two rarely produced scripts that complement each other with a beautiful freshness. Once again, Boehlke jumps at every opportunity to demonstrate his astounding gift for solid, smooth interpretation.
Written more than a hundred years apart, the two pieces weave through surprisingly similar territory, from the concept of journal-writing to the tragic chronicle of suffering their protagonists share. Underneath a zillion layers of despair, absurdity, tedium, and longing, the culprit in both cases is plain and simple: love. Even though Beckett's Krapp and Gogol's madman take off in different directions from that kernel of commonality, their motivating desire for connection and their utter aloneness makes it clear that the playwrights shared a similar vision.
Darkness pervades Krapp's Last Tape from its first claustrophobic image; it's as if the audience is looking through a black-and-white Viewmaster at a floating cell block. All powdery gray skin and coarse, unruly hair, Krapp sits at a table under a single light: "With all this darkness around me I feel less alone... in a way," he intones on a tape made years earlier. Michael Sommers captures the focused delirium of the elderly in his portrayal of the wheezy Krapp, purposefully going about his business onstage with stuttering baby steps that are at once amusing and pitiful. He dodders along with Beckett's script as Krapp revisits a tape made 30 years ago, playing and rewinding it as if to edit the choices he made back then.
The subtitles for the reel we overhear include "a memorable equinox" and "farewell to love," and we learn through listening to these sections that they represent a significant turning point in Krapp's life. One March evening, he experienced a revelation powerful enough to drive him away from the woman he loved, whose "incomparable eyes" still haunt him decades later. Though he recognizes that "there was a chance of happiness" back then, the narcissistic Krapp can't bring himself to admit aloud that love would have brought it into his life. "I wouldn't want them back," he says of those years. The heart-wrenching giveaway in the play's last moment are Sommers's empty eyes--a singular, aching picture of sorrow.
However outstanding and poignant the Beckett/Sommers portion of the evening is, it's practically a warm-up act for Kevin Kling's gorgeous portrayal of Gogol's tragicomic madman. In fact, it's somewhat unfair that this double bill invites a comparison between the two shows: At the very least, Beckett's piece doesn't have any of Gogol's manic humor or vibrant spark. Krapp is a stodgy, introverted old fart, while the madman is a real diva. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Kling takes us so far in our affection for him that when he crumbles, it really hurts. His descent gradually envelops the audience, a process captured subtly onstage by Barry Browning's stunningly photographic lighting design, as Kling and his surroundings melt little by little into thick blackness.
Where Krapp cuts himself off and dies alone, unnoticed, the madman seals his own fate by going out into the world, seeking love. His deepening schizophrenia, coupled with a secret crush on the boss's daughter, leads him to intercept an imagined correspondence between two dogs, declare himself King of Spain, and display a general depravity that lands him in an asylum. On the surface, the two characters are as different as being asleep and awake, but they're soulmates where it really counts: loneliness destroys them both.
It's as if Beckett and Gogol are coming out in tandem to show that you're Damned if you do, Damned if you don't. But with a production as polished and fulfilling as the Jungle's, chances are you won't leave the theater feeling as misanthropic as they did.