Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
“Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”
– Samuel Beckett, “Krapp’s Last Tape”
I can remember the first time I saw a tape recorder and heard my voice on tape. I was about six, which would make the year 1963. The reel-to-reel recorder was about as big as a current laptop computer, and it was that hideous turquoise which people found so very modern and attractive in the late ’50’s – early ’60’s. My father brought it out at a party and we all took turns speaking in to in, playing back our voices, and then screaming “I don’t sound like that!” I remember the tiny strands of tape getting tangled quite often. But we all thought it was a technological marvel. How did they get it so small? What would they think of next?
That memory was not too many years after Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” premiered on Broadway. The technology which allowed average people to be able to record sound in their own homes was new and revolutionary. Part of the power of Beckett’s play was based on that primitive feeling, still very much alive in 1958-1960, that technology is capable of stealing our souls out of our bodies.
It is now 1999 and we have long since sold our souls, bodies and spirits to the gods of technology. Playwrights Richard Lingeman and Victor Nevasky have replaced Beckett’s everyman Krapp, with one very particular man, Special Prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. Alone in his “Secret Command Post”, surrounded by all the materials accumulated during his four years as independent counsel, and by every conceivable modern electronic gadget, their post-impeachment Starr lives in similar isolation – listening to audio tapes, watching video tapes, dictating his memoirs on tape, talking on the phone, receiving faxes, and exercizing on his treadmill… Did I say similar isolation? Krapp was one man alone with his tape recorder and his bananas. Starr is walled in, but he cannot escape the world. His bananas arrive through a slot in the heavily armored door.
“‘Starr’s Last Tape’ is set in an indefinte future, but has two main sources of inspiration in the past”, the playwrights inform us in the program notes, “First, the absurd, existential tradition exemplified by…’Krapp’s Last Tape’. Second, the absurd, existential tradition exemplified by Kenneth Starr in his role as independent counsel.”
This Kenneth Starr, as played by Brian Reddy and directed by Eric Hill, is a paranoid and effeminate man. Clad in an orange jumpsuit with many pockets, with a remote control swinging at crotch level in a long rope around his neck, this Starr minces about and mops his brow as he wallows in his own defeat and Clinton’s rise from the ashes.
“Is your portrait of Starr, we have been asked, a fair one?” the playwrights explain, “We have done our best to be as fair to Starr – and also to Clinton, Linda, and Monica – as they have been to each other, not to mention the American people.”
Well, this is certainly an unflattering portrait of Starr. Both of the playwrights are seasoned political writers intimately involved with Washington wheelings and dealings. I’m just a boring New England housewife who has only seen Ken Starr on TV. Maybe this is a better portrait of the man than I realize. I am sure there were tons of Washington in-jokes that I and my fellow provincial audience members didn’t get, which is a very annoying feeling. I spent a lot of time writing down notes like “Charles who? Prince Charles? Charles DeGaulle? Charles Colson? No, he was Watergate…”
The Ken Starr we see and hear for an hour and fifteen minutes at the Unicorn is presented as an openly racist, anti-semitic, Christian holy-roller who is frustrated both politically, because he has never been appointed to the Supreme Court, and sexually. Way too many jokes hinge on his repressed sexuality which seems to lean towards voyeurism and bondage. Susan MacDougal in leg irons was a special turn-on, as is Tipper Gore in general.
For all its pretensions and in-jokes, “Starr’s Last Tape” is a herky-jerky piece of playwriting. It meanders around like a drunk, weaving from one incident to the next, one point of view to another. As I mentioned, I am sure I was way too dumb to get all the funny-ha-ha political jokes in the script. I wanted to be amused, so I worked hard on enjoying the banana jokes and the sexual innuendos, but you can laugh at just so many of those before you want to change the channels.
Jessica Wade has designed a really interesting set. The walls of Starr’s inner sanctum are all made of vertically hung audio tape. They form the bars to his personal prison, and, as he makes his exit, his feet become entangled in one of the many tangled heaps of tape that litter the floor. The walls are hung with photos of political figures past and present – Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Thomas E. Dewey (the man who didn’t beat Truman in the 1949 election even though the newspapers trumpeted his victory), Rudolph Giuliani, George Bush (the President, not the candidate), George Washington, and Tomas de Torquemada (the guy who ran the Spanish Inquistion.)
Richard M. Dionne’s sound design is way too obvious, which is a big problem in a one-man show where the only thing the actor has to interact with are the sound cues. The shouting voice of “Janet Reno” (none of the taped voices were authentic) which concludes the play, was painfully loud.
I had hoped to laugh more. I think the show’s sold-out notice speaks volumes to a people desperate to laugh away the embarassment of the past year’s impeachment fiasco. We look, as we should, to our artists and writers to provide us with that relief. Perhaps someday one or two of them will come through for us. Lingeman and Navasky have made a noble attempt and failed.
“Starr’s Last Tape” runs through August 28 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival‘s Unicorn Theatre. The show runs 75 minutes with no intermission. The show is officially “sold out” but if you want to take a chance call the box office at 413-298-5536.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999