At first, there is only darkness. Then, we see a small light on the left side of the stage—but even for those sitting up close, it takes a moment to realize that it is a mouth suspended in the air. The mouth delivers a breakneck monologue, a torrent of language punctuated by gasps that sound like jet engines. For ten minutes or so, the speaker works through a traumatic event that she continually insists did not happen to her, but nonetheless caused her to become mostly mute, with the exception of outbursts such as the one we are witnessing.
The mouth belongs to Lisa Dwan, an Irish actress who is quite possibly the greatest interpreter of Samuel Beckett I have seen in the flesh. “Not I,” the first of three short plays starring Ms. Dwan and presented at BAM last weekend, requires a truly athletic performance (as seen in this filmed version starring Billie Whitelaw), the acting equivalent of swimming, biking, and running the Iron Man. Indeed, even if you do not follow it—and anyone who is not already familiar with the text will certainly miss many of the words—the raw sounds prove intoxicating and musical (if not exactly pleasant), a quality that is shared by the other two plays: in the metronomic “Footfalls,” a woman obsessively paces outside the room of her dead or dying mother (who is also voiced by Ms. Dwan) and in “Rockaby,” another sits motionlessly in a creaking rocking chair while the recorded sound of her own voice recounts her gradual descent into interiority and, we may infer, death.
The collection and ordering of these plays, directed by Walter Asmus, are rather ingenious, forming a kind of descent, from the frenzied agony of “Not I,” to the softer, fading consciousness of “Footfalls,” and finally to the last twitches of life in “Rockaby.” They have a hypnotic, dream-like, and ghostly quality—in other words, this is Beckett done right, which is a tremendous achievement that involves not only a masterful understanding of the work but also a resistance to adding some sort of “twist” or “take” on the material. These terrifying lullabies are most effective when directors, stage designers, and actors offer strict fidelity to the scripts, and that is precisely what we are given here.
Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby ran through October 12th at the BAM Harvey Theater.