Signs of Absurdist Theater in North Hollywood

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

While theater is first and foremost an art form to be experienced live, the ability to record the human voice benefits drama enthusiasts in many ways. Recording technology inspired Samuel Beckett to write his 1958 play Krapp's Last Tape; and it also allows us to experience, at least aurally, that play's American Premiere. Back in 1960, Donald Davis' acclaimed performance at the Provincetown Playhouse was recorded for posterity and thanks to the Internet (and a site called it can heard today with only a few clicks of a computer.

But even in a play as talkie as Krapp's Last Tape--which is in essence a conversation between a man and a tape recorder--hearing an actor speak is only one part of the dramatic experience. This point was made very clear at the opening night of Deaf West Theatre's new production of Krapp's Last Tape this past Saturday.

Deaf West Theatre was founded fifteen years ago to allow those who cannot hear the voices of actors to fully experience live theater, as its productions use sign language in addition to the spoken word. For the past few years, Deaf West hasn't mounted a new production in its NoHo space, largely because the company has been dealing with the continued success of its 2001 staging of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which started at the small 99-seat theater in the Valley and wound up earning Tony Awards on Broadway (wrapping up its 40-city tour only last year).

What made Deaf West's Big River so special was that it incorporated sign-language into the movement and rhythms of musical theater; this same technique is employed in Deaf West's new production of Krapp's Last Tape directed by Jevon Whetter. Like musicals, Beckett's plays are extremely stylized, requiring bold theatricality instead of just sincere realism. Krapp's Last Tape is the tale of a doddering old man whose life consists of eating bananas, drinking booze, and muttering fragments of sentences while searching through files of old tapes. So when this Krapp speaks using sign language, the gestures look like another of the character's quirks, rather than a departure from the play. Like the best interpreters of Beckett, actor Troy Kotsur uses his physicality to reinforce the words, only he also is also using his body--instead of his voice--to speak the words as well.

Since almost half the play consists of the elderly Mr. Krapp listening to recordings of his younger self, this production updates the audio tapes into video tapes. In our YouTube era, the idea of Krapp's Last Videotape is not revolutionary. Here at Deaf West, the alteration to the text is justified. However, the overall effect of Beckett's haunting memory play is diminished by the video image, because seeing the younger Krapp leaves much less to the imagination than simply hearing the voice of his now-squandered past.

Of course, the role of Krapp, in addition to being signed by Kotsur, was also spoken aloud in English by another actor Greg Bryan, who sits just off stage. Sadly, Bryan's reading of the text felt disconnected from Kotsur's sign language and the play itself. This was also the case with the other one-act which makes up the second half of Deaf West's double bill: The Zoo Story. Edward Albee's first produced play, The Zoo Story also received its American premiere in 1960 opposite Krapp's Last Tape at the Provincetown Playhouse. 47 years later, Deaf West pairs them together once again.


The Zoo Story is a long, shaggy dog story sandwiched between a two-man conversation in Central Park. Albee's dialogue is sharp, but it needs to be performed naturalistically. The play's shocking, absurdist ending requires at least an initial illusion of commonplace reality. Here the sign-language does not mesh with the text. While actors Kotsur and Tyrone Giordano act out the blocking with emotion, the presence of two additional men sitting next to them on their respective park benches (the speaking actors) shatters the illusion of an intimate chance encounter.

The Zoo Story and Krapp's Last Tape run together at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood through February 18.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.