I’m sitting with playwright Samuel Beckett in a townhouse in Fishtown. I have a lot of questions, the first being how anybody can call themselves Samuel Beckett when the “real” Samuel Beckett died in 1989. In any event, the Samuel Beckett sitting in front of me is really Yoel Wulfhart. Wulfhart has Beckett’s wiry frame and penetrating eyes, so in a way he’s a lot like the author of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days.
But who is Yoel Wulfhart and why is he important anyway?
Let’s just say that Wulfhart has written what promises to be the epic play of the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The play, Cat-a-strophe, has a catchy enough title (no, it’s not a sequel to the musical CATS) but is in fact Wulfhart’s own version of the real Samuel Beckett play of the same name. The original Cat-a-strophe is one of Beckett’s shorter plays and one of his rare political plays. It’s so short in fact it’s doubtful whether any of the big theater companies downtown—the Wilma and the Philadelphia Theater Company–would ever stage it. Wulfhart’s play is much longer than Beckett’s. It comes close to clocking in at 3 hours (with an intermission or two, of course). The play’s length jives with Wulfhart’s view of himself as a verbose (this does not mean empty phraseology) version of the Irish Beckett who specialized in short, simple sentences, the opposite of Proustian meanderings.
The Fringe Festival is a massive festival of farcical satires, of crazy chorography dances and art pieces of both high and dubious quality. Some Fringe presentations exist only to out avant garde the avant garde. As Susan Sontag once said, “Not all works of art which successfully perform a moral function greatly satisfy as art.” Wulfhart describes Cat-a-strophe as “what would happen if Samuel Beckett, Dario Fo and Hannoch Levin co-wrote a sitcom.” If that sounds like a zany mix of Seinfeld and Albert Camus, you might be onto something. In person, Wulfhart is certainly a mix of the comedic and high seriousness, as evidenced by the trick he played on me when I went to shake his hand: Buried in the palm of his right hand was a ‘squeak squeak mechanism, perhaps a bathtub mouse that downplayed the seriousness of the handshake.
As for Cat-a-strophe, Wulfhart says that while the work has plenty of “ha ha” lines, he’s reluctant to call it a conventionally funny play. He says that the play is only funny on the surface, but like all surfaces that can be deceptive because the “stuff” or the “message” under the surface are the truths about ourselves we may not want to face. Cat-a-strophe, he insists, forces us to face them.
In the theater, one of the best ways to get anyone to pay attention is through laughter. Advertising barbs for the play, for instance, include such warnings as, “Side effects [from watching it’ may include squirming in your seat, tears of laughter and a pressing need to go to the bathroom.”
To some, this may sound like torture (especially the bathroom part), although bodily sensations like this can happen while watching bad productions. I’ve had this reaction myself at theaters all over town, especially at those canned laughter-like productions where audiences laugh 3 seconds into a play even when nothing overly funny is happening. Cat-a-strophe, however, is anything but manufactured pulp.
Wulfhart’s wiry Irish Beckett’s frame comes into play while watching him pour me a glass of ice water. He’s a tall, very suntanned guy who really needs an entire sofa on which to stretch his limbs while expounding on his life and work.
He believes that when people talk to one another they usually avoid saying ‘real things’ that might give offense. Will Cat-a-strophe be a hit? “Who knows,” he says, tapping into the honesty of forbidden thoughts, “it could be a bad play.” He mentions that there are more than 25 literary references in the work. “It’s about the human experience. As children we all have great hopes, but then many of those hopes do not come to fruition. It’s a farcical play, not funny but sad, but only funny on top. It’s a play about repetition, about how we repeat something over and over again hoping for something different.”
How we as human beings repeat something over and over again expecting different results is something the whole world can relate to.
Cat-a-strophe makes use of sexual references and terminology. The five actors, for instance, will greet audiences with a variety of dildos, but don’t be fooled by these pornographic sausages. Deeper existentialist meanings abound, even when one character makes a reference to getting it up. The sexual references in Cat-a-strophe amount to a Kool Whip coating to get you to pay attention. Wulfhart says his play will “put a mirror in front of your face and may make you reevaluate your life.”
That’s a large promise, but what about his life?
He tells me that Cat-a-strophe is his first play and the first production of his new company, Fail Better Productions at The Papermill, a multi-disciplinary artist community at 2825 Ormes Street. Wulfhart says he’s always been a writer and has at least 100 “amusing and funny” short stories completed as well a second play, “The Last Lunch,” about 12 people sitting around a table. He mentions that “The Last Lunch” it is a lot like The Last Supper, only in this case the characters include a mid-wife and an undertaker.
Born and raised in Israel, he’s been in the States for 30 years, first arriving in Los Angeles where he studied theater, although he says he found it difficult to make a living there. He says his dream has always been to write and produce his own plays in his own theater with his own theater company. That dream has materialized. Fail Better Productions is housed in a building that he owns with others, thanks to his involvement in real estate. Wulfhart is also the driving force behind the company that distributes The Spirit as well as a host of other publications like The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He is also a seasoned world traveler and says he spent 11 years traveling the globe, with 8 years traveling to every part of Africa.
He says he expects some people to be put off by the language in Cat-a-strophe, and he’s prepared for “walk outs” but assures me that he’s not put off by this. He keeps telling me how the cast can’t get through rehearsals without the entire production crew falling to the ground in peels of laughter.
After promising to send me the play so I can see how funny it is (he does), he lets me listen to a clip of original music that was composed for Cat-a-strophe. “Ah,” I tell him, “this is really good.” “The composer [Nik Greerken] is a genius,” Wulfhart adds. When the interview is over I read parts of Cat-a-strophe and fixate on some lines that tie in with Wulfhart’s belief that people tend to keep repeating failed patterns but wishing for something different to happen.
The character Beaver, for instance says:
All I want is a ring, RING, you hear, someone to hold me, cherish me, revere me (pause) maybe with the next guy (pause) and then I want children and a dog and a house in the suburbs and lay in the sun, and then retirement with grandchildren, and an 80th birthday party, and lay in the sun, and great grandchildren, a holiday in Venice, and an 110th birthday party and great grand grandchildren, and a bowl of milk, and an 130th birthday party….”
Poor Beaver then says:
Every time I progress I go backwards….. but maybe with the next guy , maybe with the next guy my dreams will come true, a ring, a house in the suburbs, two cute little children running about, sun in the back yard, an additional dog, and then my husband will arrive home from work, I will have dinner ready…
While reading these lines in the online script that Wulfhart sent me, and even while writing them just now, I somehow kept hearing the “squeak squeak” of the playwright’s little Beckett-Hannoch Levin palm mechanism, or… the little mouse of truth.
Written by: Yoel Wulfhart
Starring: Josh Kirwin, Samantha Solar, Taiwo Sokan, Doug Cashell and William McHattie
Times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8pm, Sundays @ 5pm
Peppermill Theater 2825 Ormes Street, Philadelphia, PA 19134
Free on Thursdays. Otherwise $15.00