It’s a distinct pleasure to emerge from pandemic-related cultural deprivation into the start of a vibrant Berkshires theater season. It’s downright exhilarating when the first play you’ve seen in more than a year is produced in the pastoral setting of Hancock Shaker Village, where Chester Theater Company (CTC) mounts this summer’s productions under a tent, surrounded by iconic architecture, fields of vegetables, pastures filled with cows, goats, and other farm animals, and, presumably safer than in its diminutive home base in tiny Chester, Massachusetts, thanks to spacious seating and fresh country air.
Author Will Eno surely did not conceive of his play “Title and Deed” as being set on a historic farm. The one-man show made its debut in Ireland in 2011—appropriately, since this existentialist-leaning play can’t help but remind audiences of the work of the venerable Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, given its blend of desolation, dislocation, ponderous humor, and focus on the wonder and inadequacy of language, not to mention the lack of a traditional narrative thread. Rather, the phrases, anecdotes, and stories that flow from the nameless man on stage—engrossingly portrayed by James Barry, a veteran of both CTC and Berkshire Theatre Group—seem to be more stream of consciousness, constantly heading off course along tangential tributaries, never reaching a conclusion, but always somehow doubling back to something weighty said before.
While Beckett is clearly Eno’s main influence, the play brings to mind a Camus title: Stranger in a Strange Land. The nameless man arrives from a nameless country, having just gone through customs after landing in the nameless country where we, the audience, find ourselves. He’s dressed plainly, slightly rumpled as if just getting off a plane, hair disheveled, and he carries a formless bag, which he quickly asks us to ignore. He recounts unfinished tales of his encounters and his homeland, which is familiar enough to be populated with acquaintances named Brian and Lauren, yet strange enough to have traditions like near-constant parades for just about every personal event—happy or sad—or gargling with sand to mark the second birthday.
His life seems to be one long string of sadness, loss, and the indifference or scorn of others, and yet he keeps on moving, maintaining some hope for a better life and connection, somewhere. Throughout his 70-minute monologue, he ponders words, common phrases, and language itself, questioning the ability of anyone to truly communicate with anyone else. The play is structured a bit like a comedy routine—with disparate topics all circling back to significant lines—but while many phrases inspire quiet laughter, the overall mood is somber.
The deft direction by Keira Naughton keeps the audience engaged in the meandering, enigmatic narrative, which is punctuated with acknowledgements of those of use seated under the tent, plus pauses that allow for the occasional moo or baa from the adjacent pastures. Rather than being intrusive, these animal calls nearly seem scripted, like odd punctuations of whatever thought has passed before us.
The set design is spare yet evocative, as anonymous as the man and the locale, its sharp edges echoing the coldness the man experiences in his encounters with others in his homeland and abroad. A tent pole that would normally awkwardly bisect the stage is incorporated into the staging. The subtle lighting projects shifting pastel tones on the tent ceiling, a neat effect since lighting must compete with the natural light of these long summer days.
By the way, the man’s request that we ignore the bag he carries becomes moot each time he retrieves one of the two items it contains: a stick and an empty metal box that peals like a cellphone when he opens it. Late in the proceedings, he precipitates what might be the climax of the play when he brings out the stick for a second time, in a vain attempt to feel something…anything. After the year we’ve all been through, it’s a familiar sentiment.
Chester Theater Company’s production of Title and Deed by Will Eno runs through June 27 at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.