Oh Krapp!

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

I'm not sure if an opening light cue needs a spoiler alert but just in case -- spoiler alert.

Lighting designer James McConnell's first cue in the production of Krapp's Last Tape at the Kirk Douglas Theater is absolutely magnificent.

As the curtain opens, we're plunged into darkness. It's the kind of dark where you notice the glow of the green exit lights behind you. Then subtly, slowly the light creeps up. You barely make out John Hurt sitting, motionless at a large table. At first the light is so dim you wonder if your eyes are going. Then ever so gently you make out a single light fixture casting a circular shadow on the floor. Then that circle becomes the rectangle of the table and just as mysteriously morphs into a square defining the edges of a room. In a single cue, you discover: the man, his desk, and his world.

The cue takes about two minutes, and it's all white light and a study of shadows. It's really more like experiencing a James Turrell installation. More than simply illuminating the stage, it's a light cue whose ephemerality wakes up your senses. You become aware of time, and maybe it's just me, but time's effect on your eyesight.

All the while, John Hurt, who plays our protagonist - Krapp - sits there stoically unmoved.

Now, if you know this Samuel Beckett masterpiece - you'll get the brilliance of making the audience aware of time from the very beginning.

The conceit of Krapp's Last Tape is that every year he records an audio tape cataloging his life. For this, the ultimate session, Krapp first plays a tape from 30 years earlier. Listening, rewinding, replaying - we watch him encounter his past. It's a duet between a man and his youth. We watch at he grimaces at the folly. We ache as he longing remembers placing his head on the breast of a long lost love. We smile at his discovery of the absurdity of the word: spool. "Spoool."

It's hard to imagine a finer performance than Mr. Hurt's. He walks Beckett's tightrope from the physical vaudeville, complete with banana, to the Lear-like pathos of old age. Mr. Hurt avoids the easy reading of Mr. Krapp - that of cantankerous curmudgeon. Too often Beckett's solitary shut-in is portrayed as a crazy grump in the attic who we have little sympathy for. This is a far more nuanced man who we not only care about but identify with. Like all truly great performances - what it reveals is the genius of the script.

If you've never seen Krapp's Last Tape, don't miss this one. If, like me, you've seen the play, go again. This is a play to grow old with. It will remind you of the bittersweet joys of memory.

Krapp's Last Tape plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through November 4.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 1 hour without intermission

Banner image: John Hurt in the Gate Theatre Dublin production of Krapp's Last Tape at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging