In 1982, the German television channel Süddeutscher Rundfunk broadcast an unusual 13-minute piece, Quadruple I+II, by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Easy to describe but opaque in explanation, the piece consists of four wrapped performers who briskly pace in a precise, repeating pattern around a tight white square, narrowly avoiding collision. So much fuss, no obvious reason. Beckett can say so much with so little.
Quadruple is mentioned briefly in Gino DiIorio Sam and Dédé or My dinner with Andréé the Giant, now at Washington Stage Guild through February 6, and the short choreography feels like an apt metaphor. Although there are only two characters in DiIorio’s play, Beckett and the beloved titular wrestler, the actual historical figures are also, spectrally, on stage or, more accurately, what each audience member think you know about everyone. contrary to QuadrupleThe figures of Beckett and André, well interpreted by Alan Wade and Benjamin Russell respectively, speak. They talk so much they often end up saying very little in a piece that pulls a 95 minute piece from an interesting historical anecdote.
While living in a French commune north of Paris, Beckett acted as a driver for many local school children. Proving that fact is often stranger than fiction, one of the children, André René Roussimoff, grew up to be a giant (the Giant) in the world of professional wrestling. The first three scenes imagine school excursions in 1958. The two discuss cricket, school and drama, but more than anything they talk about seeing and being seen, the axis around which almost the whole play revolves. The three remaining scenes are works of pure fiction: André visiting Beckett after a production of End of Game in 1963; a drunken dinner in a hotel room after a wrestling match 12 years later; and finally a Beckettian ode inasmuch as epilogue.
Russell brings an affable and warm presence to André, a perpetual teenager whose zest for life is contagious, both transmittable and sometimes dangerous. His laugh, his broad smile and his deep voice with Belgian accents evoke André without falling into parody. Wade’s Beckett (dressed by costume designer Sigridur Johannesdottir in the “old brown suit” of Beckett and the Wallabees in suede) is cool, professorial, an observer who says less than he sees, hiding behind his quarter-size lenses at the above her downturned lips. The two have an ease together that doesn’t quite come across as chemistry but never drops below a mutual interest in each other. Like Gogo and Didi, Beckett’s two tramps Waiting for Godot, the two are glued together, but the production doesn’t quite answer why. What are they looking for in each other? A foil? A friend? Answer? They walk together, narrowly avoiding collision.
The play revels in its repetitions and homages to Beckett (try counting how many times someone says “I don’t know” or denounces “nothing is happening”). The hotel scene is a well-meaning homage to Louis Malle’s 1981 film, My dinner with André. Easy assessments abound. André is a giant, “ever-expanding” who alternately wishes to be hoisted up by the crowd and just another face in it (sometimes the logic of the characters bends like a cloverleaf). Beckett is a writer who writes badly, a man of the theater who avoids the spotlight. André, the body that cannot be filled, Beckett, the spirit that cannot be appeased. André wants “larger than life” stories, Manichean in their morality. Beckett flees such certainty in bland inarticulation (Beckett himself never suffered such a fate. He could, unlike his contemporary Joyce, “justify every syllable”).
There’s an interesting inappropriateness and reserve in Steven Carpenter’s direction, befitting a play that aims to be Beckettian while rejecting the playwright’s characteristic bathos and precision. The characters do not age. The scenes have a very similar rhythm. The sets, by Carl Gudenius and Jingwie Dai, have a comic wink. Beckett’s steering wheel eclipses the writer. The hotel room is elegant but strange. The final scene is gratifyingly shocking and delivers lighting designer Marianne Meadow’s finest moments, as well as, oddly enough, the most authentic connection between her performers. It’s like Beckett knows, “give a man a scene and he’ll walk.” Put him in an urn and he might say something.
Duration: 1h45 including 10 minutes intermission.
Sam and Dédé or My dinner with Andréé the Giant plays until February 6, 2022 presented by the Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theater at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($50 to $60, half off for students and $10 for seniors) can be purchased in line.
COVID safety: Masks are required for all and attendees must present photo ID and show proof that they meet the CDC’s definition of being fully vaccinated upon entering the theater with a physical copy or number of their vaccination card.
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