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stage dive

Theater Review: Brooklyn’s Master Tapeheads

Cillian Murphy in 'misterman' and John Hurt in 'Krapp's Last Tape.'

Two Irish voices, one old, one young, both living life in stereo: Realities proceed on dual, dueling tracks. In the acclaimed production of Krapp’s Last Tape that’s now wynded its way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the great John Hurt — in what is, amazingly, his New York stage debut — sits mostly motionless, downstage center, at a desk in a pool of light. He savors carefully selected words (“Spooooool...”) as he slips into the relaxed-fit skin of Krapp, Samuel Beckett’s “dream-devoured man,” a saturnine writer in his sixties who’s approaching pure and absolute stasis: Time seems to slow as he revisits “that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago” via a stack of reel-to-reels recorded in his salad days.

Meanwhile, a few subway stops away at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Cillian Murphy tumbles through Enda Walsh’s hell-for-leather misterman at ramming speed: He’s Thomas, 33, childlike and living rough in an abandoned warehouse at the mad peak of his Jesus Year. Thomas is dangerously aflame with Christ-love and sexual repression, and he, too, is reviewing a former life via tape recorder. But where Krapp sits almost motionless, skeptically regarding his youthful arrogance, Thomas sprints around the industrial clutter of his makeshift living space, attempting to reenact a life he left behind, under grim circumstances you’ll have no trouble guessing. He’s got snatches of recorded conversations with the various sinners he knew back in his hometown of Inishfree, captured on the retro tape deck he still keeps slung over his shoulder at all times. Murphy, a remarkably labile performer powered by a strange and luminous inner violence, flings himself around the stage like a rag doll, picking up where the tapes leave off, playing the whole town, from the village eedjit to the slatternly waitress: His private hell is reenacting the morally polluted community he once deplored and detested. The voices emanate from a series of ancient reel-to-reels planted throughout the vast, floodlit playing space. (What was cutting-edge technology for Beckett in 1958 is, for Walsh, a retro-kitsch affectation.) The question of how the mad Thomas, who seems to be a child of the eighties, transferred his audio samples from cassette to a more ancient format, is best left unasked — misterman is far less literal in logistics and chronology than its solve-the-puzzle structure might suggest.

See both of these shows, if you can. Both are landmarks. And see them in the same week, if possible. Hurt, the body at rest, and Murphy, the body in motion: These two mirror-image performances, created by two magnificent talents, are in a sort of mystical dialogue with one another. I’m not suggesting parity of craft: Krapp’s is a masterpiece, whereas misterman, for all its clever atmospherics and twisted lyric charm (“There’s a great honesty to Milk of Magnesia”), is a variation on a very familiar theme  — the mad man-child’s Travis Bickle–ish descent into violent catastrophe. (Though it’s freshened and enlivened by Walsh’s berserker direction and Murphy’s inimitable performance. Could anyone else pull this off half as well? I’m not sure.) The collision of Murphy’s unstoppable force with Hurt’s immovable object — two very different characters, two very different performers, two very different dialogues with the irretrievable past — results in a kind of singularity, an interdimensional theater-fusion phenomenon that’s not to be missed. It’s the closest you’ll get to time-travel on a stage, or anywhere on this plane of reality.   

Krapp's Last Tape is playing through December 18 at BAM.
misterman is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through December 23.

Photo: Pavel Antonov, Richerd Termine