Paul Tei's Mad Cat Theatre Does Beckett

This St. Paddy's Day weekend, while much of Miami is celebrating Irish culture with green beer, shamrock decor, and Celtic rock, Mad Cat Theatre Company will offer a different Irish perspective: existential despair, traumatic recollections, and creaking ghost stories from the nation's chief export of the avant-garde, Samuel Beckett.

For four performances only, Mad Cat artistic director Paul Tei will direct himself, Deborah L. Sherman, and Carey Brianna Hart through an approximately hourlong collection of three Beckett shorts steeped in darkness — of the soul, of the past, of the stage itself. In the 1972 monologue Not I, a woman rendered mostly mute (Sherman) reflects on a harrowing event in her past that still reverberates. In the 1965 teleplay Eh Joe, which Tei and cinematographer Ted Chambers have been shooting as a video to be projected onstage, a middled-age man haunted by current and former failings sits in an austere Beckettian hovel, berated by an offscreen voice. In Footfalls, an agoraphobic woman (Hart) paces metronomically on a hard floor while communicating with a 90-year-old mother we never see — and who may or may not exist.

For Beckett neophytes whose knowledge is limited largely to Waiting for Godot, these pieces offer distilled visions of his bleak worldview and rigorously modern aesthetic. But according to Tei, they offer a few shards of hope.

"For me, they complemented each other enough," he says. "They were about people who were in the process of dealing with past actions and how they got to this place. You get to the later plays, and it's all, 'Let's end this. Let's get ready for death.' And these characters still felt like there was a glimmer of some kind. I felt like they were good cautionary tales for an audience to go, 'I'm glad I'm not that person' or 'I don't want to end up like that person, but there's still time.' "

All three of the protagonists are struck by aphasia or are otherwise impeded from traditional communication: In none of the plays do two characters converse onstage. This can make the plays seem like tough, exhausting reads even if they encompass only a few pages of text.

"A lot of the shorter Beckett pieces read like IKEA manuals or sort of like English-to-German translations," Tei says. "They're not pleasurable reads. You read them and go, 'Did I miss something? Is that it? What else is there?' But if you're excited by them on the page, it motivates you to want to try them out and experience them. When I first came across it, it was so much different than reading a play by Mamet or Tennessee Williams."

Sherman, who plays the monologist in Not I — her character is named Mouth, because that's the only part of her we see on an otherwise darkened stage — found the text thrillingly daunting: a block of fragmented thoughts interrupted by countless precisely timed ellipses. "If you even take a glance at the piece, you go, 'What the hell is this?' It is unsettling, it is jarring, it is unconventional, it is deconstructed in every form, even the writing itself.

"When we do it [in rehearsal], it's done with care and love, but when we finish, I feel like I've run around the block 45 times," she adds. "Every time I do it, there is a new discovery, and it's something that just came out of nowhere. That doesn't happen with a living-room drama. That also is what makes it so risky and wonderful at the same time."

Directing himself in the Eh Joe film, Tei faced a similarly unorthodox challenge as the title character — to remain a captivating, emotionally rich presence while never speaking and while enduring a barrage of monotonous offscreen insults that resemble Chinese water torture. Jack MacGowran, who performed the role under Beckett's original direction, called the part "the most grueling 22 minutes I have ever had in my life."

"At times it's kind of maddening," Tei agrees. "You're constantly internalizing what is being said, and you're trying to find a stillness on the outside that can represent the turmoil on the inside."

Tei dubbed this collection Tones on Tales, a playful double-entendre that references Daniel Ash's goth-rock group Tones on Tails. It also describes Tei and sound designer Matt Corey's approach to the pieces: They established specific musical tones for each of Beckett's anguished tales, playing off the scripts' references to elements such as chimes, larks, and the sea.

Mad Cat prides itself on being a music-driven company; its most recent productions have been staged concerts of cult albums like Paul McCartney's RAM and Harry Nilsson's The Point! The soundscapes in Tones on Tales are one way for Tei to assert some Mad Cat personality on these ageless shorts. But simply presenting these experimental, potentially alienating plays in a theater landscape dominated by familiar comforts is distinctive enough. It's hard to imagine another professional company in South Florida staging semi-obscure Beckett in 2016.

"Beckett isn't done because people are so afraid to say they don't know or don't understand or are uncomfortable," Sherman says. "Theater is life, and life isn't a pretty little package with a bow on it. The whole point of this night is to explore what it really means to be alive.

"I'm really proud that I'm a part of this, and I'm proud of Paul for sticking to his guns artistically and not trying to compete with the general masses," she adds, "because when you do that, you lose a part of who you are. We have decided to go on a ride with Samuel Beckett, with Paul as our leader. And he is leading us down that rabbit hole at this exact moment in time. And that's really super-fucking-cool."

Tones on Tales: A Night of Samuel Beckett
8 p.m. Thursday, March 17, through Sunday, March 20, at Miami Theater Center's SandBox, 9816 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; 305-751-9550; madcattheatre.org. Tickets cost $30.

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