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Actor Sinks His Teeth Into Solo Role

Hemmingsen’s performance makes Beckett’s play fascinating.

Not much happens in Samuel Beckett’s script for the solo-show "Krapp’s Last Tape." After all, the modern minimalist playwright wasn’t very interested in such superfluous elements of traditional plays as plot. So, in order to make the evening interesting, an actor has to be fascinating to watch. Brian Hemmingsen is such an actor and his performance is indeed fascinating in a staging in the Theater on the Run on South Four Mile Run Drive.

Hemmingsen is a familiar face throughout the professional theater community of our town. He’s also a company member of the Arlington-based Keegan Theatre, which is presenting the production. He sinks his teeth into the role of an addled elderly man who, alone in the world and with rapidly deteriorating memory, tries to capture and recapture his past through the medium of tape recordings.

This man "Krapp" seems to have had a habit of spending part of every birthday taping his own recollections of the year just past. By his sixty-ninth birthday, it has become difficult to remember much that happened in the twelve prior months. But, then, that may be in part because nothing much did happen.

Krapp starts the ritual event by listening to one of the tapes he made years before. In this case, it is the one he made when he was thirty-nine. More happened then, but not a lot more. Besides, listening to his own thirty-nine year old self describe events, he has trouble bringing the memories back.

Beckett used this bare concept to explore some issues of human values but he seemed most interested in creating an opportunity for an actor to stretch his skills. The play was written for Irish actor Patrick Magee and its original title was simply "Magee’s Monologue." That was in the late 1950s, not long after his best known work, "Waiting for Godot," was written but a decade before he would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work for the stage and in novels.

Hemmingsen occupies the tiny stage of the 85-seat black box facility operated by Arlington County’s Cultural Affairs Division. When the audience enters, he’s already sitting still at a table, staring off into the space in front of him. He captures everyone’s attention not through any action but by physical presence and the lack of action. He doesn’t even blink very often and when he does it is not a quick flick of his eyelids but a slow closing and reopening that takes a long, long time.

Time is elongated in the world the audience is watching. Hemmingsen’s Krapp doesn’t actually say his first word for over twenty minutes, but the time is not empty. Instead, there are physical events with Hemmingsen setting up the tape machine, selecting a tape to hear and discovering the few objects of the world his memory no longer catalogues (a banana being an object of fascination as if being encountered for the first time).

There are facts and clues revealed in the text – the recorded voice of Krapp from the past and the halting narration by Krapp of the present – and those can be the basis of endless speculation on the way home from the theater. But it is the performance itself that captivates during the 90 minute intermissionless show. "Krapp’s Last Tape" may have begun fifty years ago as "Magee’s Monologue" but, for now, it is "Hemmingsen’s Monologue."

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, www.PotomacStages.com. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.</i>