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Rick Cluchey soars in balletic ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’

Playwright Rick Cluchey performs “Krapp’s Last Tape” Shattered Globe Theatre productiStage 773. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Playwright Rick Cluchey performs “Krapp’s Last Tape” in a Shattered Globe Theatre production at Stage 773. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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When: Through May 12

Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

Tickets: $28

Info: (773) 327-5252;

Run time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, with one intermission plus discussion

Updated: June 5, 2013 6:05AM

For anyone interested in what is unquestionably one of the most groundbreaking chapters in the history of 20th century theater, Rick Cluchey’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s one-act, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” is required viewing.

Running through May 12 only, in a Shattered Globe Theatre presentation at Stage 777, this is Beckett with direction “from the horse’s mouth.”

Now 79, Cluchey — who grew up within smelling distance of the Chicago stockyards, and, by age 21, was sentenced to life in prison for robbery and kidnapping — discovered theater while serving at San Quentin State Prison. There, in the late 1950s, in collaboration with fellow prisoner Kenneth Whelan, he formed what would become the fabled San Quentin Drama Workshop. And eventually the fates aligned so that Cluchey, ultimately released on lifetime parole, was befriended by Beckett, and eventually directed by the master himself.

So, it is not an exaggeration to say that this production is the canonical version of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Watch Cluchey — a small, matchstick-thin man with a weathered face, silver-blue eyes and tufts of gray-white hair — and you will see what might best be described as a Beckett ballet.

Clearly the “choreography” of this dark, lyrical, often mordantly funny one-act — in which an old man relives his past while listening to reel-to-reel tapes he has made at various times in his life — has long since become part of this actor’s DNA. You see it in the almost musically timed, obsessive-compulsive-style peeling of a banana, the deliberately demented spinning of the spooled tapes, the look of revery that comes as he listens to gorgeous descriptions of long-ago erotic episodes and the grunts of disgust at his youthful pretensions. The self-loathing is palpable.

And everything is pared to a minimum in the half-light, with stark shadows — deathly phantoms — hovering in the closetlike space to which Krapp sometimes escapes for a drink. (The lighting design, by Steve Opalinski and Drew Schad, also seems to be quintessential Beckett.)

Although initially advertised as an evening of two one-acts, the second play, “Sam and Rick,” has morphed into a moderated discussion with the actor as he reminisces about his life and his friendship with Beckett.

“Beckett was all about ‘less is better,’” said the unpretentious actor, who told of how he visited the playwright when he was near death, and was presented with one of his suitcases. “He loved Schubert, he loved Matisse and Giacometti [the sculptor who designed the first tree for “Waiting for Godot’]. And the ironic thing is that he could never go to the theater because, as he put it, ‘The audience would be watching MY responses rather than the play’.”

Here, you watch Cluchey; you cannot take your eyes off him.

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