An evening of Samuel: Beckett: theatrics and paradox -- what else?

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'Texts', Texts by Samuel Beckett. Performed by Joseph Chaikin, directed by Steven Kent. Adapted by Chaikin and Kent. "Suddenly . . . I couldn't go on," says the Voice -- which then goes on for an hour, in a nonstop tumble of words and images.

The message is nihilistic. Yet the language is so vigorous that it energizes all it touches. The result is a paradox typical of Samuel Beckett, the avatar of despair, whose work has proved life-affirming enough to win a Nobel Prize: No matter how cosmically gloomy the tale may be, there is hope in the existence of that tale. AS long as the Voice goes on, all negations are negated.

In staging his collection of Beckett texts, Josehp Chaikin has taken a standard approach. Like some of Beckett's bestknown characters, he looks a little like an existential Charlie Chaplin, with frizzy hair and baggy clothes, even a bowler hat and cane -- which take on lives of their own at one point, glowing disembodied on a darkened stage

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He is alone in his desolate landscape, except for another Voice that doesn't even have a body anymore. We hear it from time to time, but it may not be "another" at all -- just a dream, or a memory, or some wandering fragment of our hero's barely palpitating personality.

Predictably, the evening doesn't "go" anywhere. It begins and ends in a universe no larger than the stage of the Public Theater, where it's playing. Its circular speeches come from two similar sources: the difficult but memorable novel "How It Is" and the vignettes called "Texts for Nothing." Chaikin turns these into texts for a usually gripping monologue.

His alchemy isn't flawless. Some of his inflections are poorly chosen, as if he expects us to know beforehand what he has in mind, when there's no reason why we should. And the show is rather humorless, unlike Jake McGowran's foray into Beckett a few years ago, which was uproarious at times, in its own murky way. Chaikin has limited himself to the glum "Texts for Nothing" at the expense of the witty "Stories," published in the same volume.

All in all, though, this is a challenging and rewarding experience, drawing us inexorably into Beckett's mysterious world. Chaikin makes most of Beckett's words entirely his own, using the simplest theatrical means (pauses, tempo changes, hitches almost too small to be called hesitations) to charge them with surprising new connotations. At some amazing moments, this is a positively musical performance, where the actual pitches of words contribute to their shades of meaning, with a precision and delicacy rarely encountered in more conventional theater.

The show's other values reflect a similar resourcefulness. High praise goes to Mary Brecht's costumes, Craig Miller's dramatic lighting, and Gerald Bloom's artfully stark scenery. Most of the way, though, the evening belongs entirely to the author and the star. Chaikin, best known as leader of the brilliant Open Theater, deserves hearty applause for turning Beckett's minimal prose into a concentrated and sometimes rivet ing hour of sheer theatrics.

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