Beckettian Mash-Up at the Baryshnikov Arts Center

Peter Brook, the theater legend who directed the original run of Fragments in London, writes, “Today, with the passage of time, we can see how false were the labels stuck on Beckett—despairing, negative, pessimistic.  Indeed, he peers into the filthy abyss of human existence.  His humor saves him and us from falling in.  He rejects theories, dogmas, that offer pious consolations, yet his life was a constant, aching search for meaning.”  This is both succinct and spot-on.  It is certainly easy to see why these early, false labels were applied to him—in a key scene in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo furiously booms, “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! … One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second.”  Such proclamations make it easy to forget that the relationship at the center of the play—that between Gogo and Didi—is a loving one.

And that is the success of Fragments, a series of five Beckett shorts (“Rough For Theatre I,” “Rockaby,” “Act Without Words II,” “Neither,” and “Come and Go”) running at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.  It is a clear production that never forgets the humorous twinkle in the wily Irishman’s eyes.  “Act Without Words II” is particularly successful; in this short, simple play, two men go about their day with polar attitudes—one wheezes in exasperation at every little thing he has to do, while the other joyfully hums along to such banal tasks as brushing his teeth and combing his hair.  It’s a kind of Charlie Chaplin take on The Beatles song “A Day in the Life.”

Which isn’t to say that darker aspects in the plays are dismissed; a recent London production of Godot with Ian McKellen failed precisely for this reason—while it played up the often ignored slapstick elements of Beckett’s writing, it glossed over his heavier moments, giving the audience the sense that they had just seen a smart but light play.  Here, each actor has precisely the tools necessary for their parts.  They have the Beckett face—ragged, worn—and the Beckett voice—raspy and destroyed by years of cigarette smoke.  Kathryn Hunter, in her monologue “Rockaby” (which is rewritten so that Hunter delivers the speech instead of a pre-recorded voice), sounds like a dying frog as she recites her lullaby; dressed in all-black, she reminds us of those old Italian women who are perpetually in mourning.

Ultimately, Fragments is a sharp production bound to please Beckett enthusiasts while also serving as a good introduction to those unfamiliar with his work.  All the old themes are here—man searching for external validation, the inability of language as a means of communication, the untrustworthiness of memory.  In under sixty minutes, we feel as if we have spent a full and fruitful evening with one of Modernism’s great dramatists.

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Aaron Botwick

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