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Theatre in Review: A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Paul Radki, Rachel Pickup. Photo: James Wade

For a playwright often considered to be forbiddingly difficult, Samuel Beckett has never been so popular. Coming up next month is the much-anticipated revival of Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Also on the November schedule is All That Fall, a radio play reinterpreted for the stage by Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon. And right now the Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting this sampler of the playwright's shorter works. It's a golden opportunity for Beckett fans.

A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett, now at the Irish Rep, should be of particular interest because the works are rarely seen in New York. Probably the most unusual (and potentially controversial) of the plays is Act Without Words. This 1956 mime piece, in which a man struggles for survival in a hostile desert environment, is here rendered as a puppet play. On N. Joseph DeTullio's detailed miniature setting, the puppet, designed by Den Design Studio, takes on infinite human dimensions as it is repeatedly thrown to the ground and reaches again and again, futilely, for an elusive bottle of water. At the same time, it's hard not to feel that the use of puppetry ever so slightly sentimentalizes Beckett's conception; instead of contemplating the existential implications of the character's predicament, it's rather too easy to be touched by way tiny changes in his movements artfully suggest deeply felt emotions. Given the controlling ways of the Beckett estate -- which has been known to shut down productions that deviate from their original canonical form -- the director, Bob Flanagan, surely must have had permission to take this approach. In any case, this Act Without Words thoroughly communicates the author's Sisyphean view of human existence.

Next up is Breath, a 1969 work that makes it into the record books as the shortest play ever written. Its approximate running time is about 30 seconds, and it consists of little more than a couple of baby cries and the sound of breath. I suppose you could spin an essay about how Beckett has distilled his vision down to its purest form -- a point that might in fact be true -- but I confess that I cannot see it as anything more than a stunt. (It was originally seen, in a different version, in, of all things, Oh! Calcutta!) I have to wonder if Beckett wasn't testing his admirers, to see how far they might go in terms of praising the most ephemeral piece of work.

The evening closes with the far more substantial Play (1963), which weds a powerful central image to a savage text. Three actors are seen interred inside funeral urns, with only their ravaged faces visible. They are a man, his wife, and his female lover; the words, recounting their triangle, come in torrents ("We were not long together when she smelled the rat. Give up that whore, she said, or I'll cut my throat [hiccup] pardon -- so help me God. I knew she could have no proof. So I told her I did not know what she was talking about...."), with all three of them usually talking at once. The piece repeats, but even so, one only gets fragments of it, which somehow makes everything said seem doubly sinister. Play has the same disturbing allure as other Beckett pieces, such as Not I and Rockabye, in which the sheer intensity and speed of the words casts a spell that holds you in its grip of malice; listening to these decayed bodies rooting around in the details of their long-gone passions is a distinctly creepy experience. It helps that Flanagan has hired three actors -- Rachel Pickup, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, and Paul Radki -- who have superbly trained voices; they make a satisfying trio of tomb-mates.

Play also benefits from the extreme precision of Michael Gottlieb's lighting, which constantly shifts intensively focused pin spots from one face to another, and Andrea Lauer's costumes, hair, and makeup, which transforms all three into (admittedly rather chatty) human remains. Ryan Rumery's sound design effectively reinforces his mood-setting music. Jamie Bressler's prop design also contributes much to the little world of Act Without Words.

A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett is unlikely to convert anyone unfamiliar or unsympathetic to the author's works. (He is hardly my favorite playwright, for reasons that we can go into another day.) But anyone with an interest in him should pounce on the opportunity to experience these brief, yet highly representative, pieces.--David Barbour

(25 October 2013)

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