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Not many people have seen All That Fall. Airing on BBC radio in early 1957, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) wrote it for radio broadcast, and staged productions weren’t allowed by Beckett while his estate has been almost as strict. The workaround, first permitted in 2012 to director Trevor Nunn, is to produce it as if it were being recorded in front of an audience. The actors hold scripts, speaking and creating sound effects into microphones dangling from the ceiling, and the director, sound designer, and actors create something akin to a symphonic performance. It’s a complicated undertaking, and Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC) lives up to its reputation for excellence with a flawless, unusual piece of theater in this Fringe Festival production.
A large “ON AIR” sign lights up, and actor and director Tina Ann Brock, as Mrs. Rooney (Maddy), begins her effortful walk to the Boghill train station in rural Ireland. Her shuffling gait is reproduced by cast members rummaging and scraping in two shallow boxes on a prop table, perhaps filled with sand or pebbles. Sound designer Andrew Nelson has risen to the play’s requirements, with the effects helping push the plot and forming part of the actors’ jobs. IRC’s set is a grey, 1950s-era sound studio designed by Dirk Durossette and tuned to the spare and gorgeous language of the play.
A sheep’s bleat, followed by a cow’s moo and a rooster’s crow, put us at ease. However, with Beckett, unease is never far off. Tension builds as Maddy, a woman in her 70s beset with infirmities, grumbles her way to meet her blind husband, coming home from a half-day’s work on a Saturday. It’s a lovely day, “but will it hold up?” Maddy is seized with apprehensions, and Brock plays her quickly changing moods with the fluidity of music.
Maddy is late, and as she totters along to the station, she encounters neighbors along the way. She isn’t very nice to them. All of the Boghillians know each other, probably better than they’d like, in the tiny town based on Beckett’s childhood home outside Dublin. As she passes people’s houses, Maddy comments on the occupants’ lamentable lives.
Along the road, Maddy encounters a cart driver (Bill Rahill), his hinny (mule) refusing to pull a load of dung; a flirtatious bicyclist, Mr. Tyler (Brian McManus), whom she treats with affronted hauteur (in a delightful touch, Mr. Tyler’s script is clipped to a bicycle’s handlebars). Maddy is wroth, accidentally calling him “Mr. Rooney,” and we infer her marriage is cold. Mr. Slocum (Rahill again) gives Maddy a lift in his car, accidentally running over a chicken. At the station, Maddy is curt with Mr. Barrell, the station master (Kevin J. McCann). Brittany Holdahl Donahue is a standout among a terrific ensemble as the ditzy, religious Miss Fitt.
No one wants to talk about why the train is late. When it finally arrives, something about the train journey has shaken Mr. Rooney (Dan), played by John Zak. A veteran IRC actor, Zak brilliantly conveys the jitters beneath Dan’s cantankerous dismissal of Maddy’s questions about what happened. Trying to distract her, he asks what Sunday’s sermon will be. Maddy tells him, “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” After a beat, they erupt in laughter at the irony of it all, and we see a key to their long partnership. It’s an important revelation, and my one quibble with the performance I saw is that the shared laugh seemed brief.
Enter a small boy, Jerry (Elliot Colahan), bringing something Dan dropped at the station. The reason for the train’s delay is revealed, and the “ON AIR” sign goes dark on another top-notch production by IRC, now in its 17th year as Philadelphia’s own theater of the absurd.
What, When, Where
All That Fall. By Samuel Beckett, directed by Tina Ann Brock. $20-$25. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Through September 24, 2023, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 Hicks Street, Philadelphia. idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.
The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with all-gender restrooms.
Masks are optional.
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