Saturday, May 4, 2013

Stunning, Hermetic and Erudite

Fragments
five pieces Samuel Beckett:
Rough for Theatre I
Rockaby
Act Without Words II

Neither
Come and Go
directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne
produced by C.I.C.T. (Centre international des creations theatrales ) and Theatre des Bouffes du Nord (Paris)
presented by Theatre for a New Audience, New York
Samuel Beckett was one of the giant icons of 20th-century theatre. Of the important playwrights of those hundred years, he represents the century’s unique contribution to dramatic literature, the combination of absurdism and minimalism.
Of the directors who created what we think of as modern theatre, the age of the director, Peter Brook is one of the two still alive (the other is Judith Malina). His contribution has been a stage minimalism that’s been enormously influential. Marie-Helene Estienne has been Brook’s assistant, dramaturge and producer. 
Brook was born in London, Beckett in Dublin, but both spent much of their careers in Paris.
In its compulsive sparceness, Fragments, short pieces by Beckett produced in New York recently, epitomize the distillation of theatre. The five works (directed by Brook and Estienne) that make up the evening present no characters, really. The actors on stage (if they can be called actors) represent ideas personified. They have no offstage life, they exist to reflect life for our benefit. 
Rough for Theatre I presents two actors, one as a blind man, the other as an amputee. Rockaby is a quintessentially Beckettian monologue, the actress speaking – reflecting – merely to keep company with herself. 
Neither also presents a single actress, speaking a sort of internal monologue, while Come and Go offers us three women whispering about each other. That’s it.
Act without Words II is the most accessible of the set. There are two actors on stage. One exhibits constant chagrin and disappointment, the other a vapid cheerfulness, both silent. One at a time they dress and undress. They engage in a bit of activity and then crawl back into the bags from which they emerged, unchanged by the futile work of the day.
The powerful, rarified performances are like acting under a microscope. Each gesture, each inflection, is amplified, because there are so few of them. Between them, the playwright and directors have an anal retentive vision as refined as a pianist playing with one finger.
These abstruse works demand a new way of receiving theatre. They’re brilliant and enigmatic. They’re unconcerned with the reception they might receive from the public. They’re stunning, but they’re symptomatic of a crushing temperament of modern theatre. The playwright is so hermetic and erudite that his work has nothing to do with popular theatre literacy.