The set Robert Wilson has designed for “Krapp’s Last Tape” looks like an interrogation room. A lamp hangs from the ceiling, making Krapp visible but keeping pretty much everything else in the dark. There’s some kind of grid in the back that suggests either library shelves or a prison door. The nine small windows are so high you’d have to use a ladder to peer out of them.
The 69-year-old Krapp — played by Wilson, 74, in a production he directed — sits for a long time, silent and unmoving, at the start of the play, as if daring his captors to make him talk. But there’s no one else there, just him and a tape recorder. And once his finishes eating two bananas in a quirky, precise way, he turns on the machine and listens to his younger self, recorded 30 years previously, when he was a more romantically inclined (but still gloomy) man. In part of the tape, the 39-year-old Krapp reflects upon listening to himself in an older tape, recorded 10 or 12 years previously.
In the present, Krapp stops the tape at times — or rewinds, or fast forwards — and shares his thoughts, which both float into wistfulness and sharpen into disdain.
“Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago,” he says. “Hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.
Wilson, a giant of avant-garde theater, is presenting his take on Samuel Beckett’s 1958 play at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through March 20, as part of the Peak Performances series. One of the things he is known for is the meticulous care he puts into his sets and lighting, and this production — which is having its American premiere in Montclair — is indeed visually exquisite, with the room a gray, imposing fortress (is it keeping Krapp trapped, or protecting him from the world?), the rain outside represented by cascading shards of lights, and Wilson striking odd, dramatic poses. As you watch the action, you almost feel like you’re looking at a series of carefully composed paintings.
Wilson’s Krapp is horrified by the dead end his life has become, but also amused by it. Despite his dire pronouncements, he wears red socks, and there is sometimes a playful glint in his eyes.
This is a 70-minute, intermissionless play, with little in the way of action or plot. It’s just a portrait of a man, near the end of his life. (Krapp makes a tape on his birthday every year, and the one we watch him make, the title tells us, is the final one in the series).
The drama is in the stark beauty of the minimalistic set, the bold contrasts between light and dark, and the long opening silence, which forces audience members to settle in and concentrate, as if it were a meditative exercise. It’s also in the force of the storm outside — the shocking boom of thunder and the relentless pounding of the rain.
Most of all, though, the drama is in the rich inner life Wilson gives Krapp, with his strange, jutting movements, his gently lilting speeches, and his unexpected explosions. The way he makes Krapp, who seems to be running out of reasons to live, so vividly alive.
The final performances of “Krapp’s Last Tape” is March 20 at 3 p.m.; visit peakperfs.org.