Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nothing Funnier Than Unhappiness

Few figures of the modern stage are as revered as Samuel Beckett and Peter Brook. Both challenged and broadened the concepts of what theatre could be (the former with the anti-play Waiting for Godot, the latter with the landmark text The Empty Space); both work by ruthlessly stripping away all they find unnecessary to get at the essence of their art; for this both have amassed in drama circles a hero status most devoted, to which I will admit I belong. I thus almost felt obligated to catch Fragments, a collection of five Beckett shorts directed by Brook that just spent four days at the Kennedy Center.

Obligation is a terrible reason to do something--indeed, Brook himself mused, "it would be a sad day if people went to the theater out of duty"--and is often a preemptive excuse for not enjoying it. But there is great reason to enjoy the work of Beckett and Brook, and it was in evidence in Fragments, a revue surprisingly accessible and almost self-consciously aimed to deflate pretensions.

The staging fittingly contained only the essentials: a playing space, slightly raised, on which sat two boxes on either side, near either end, on the one sitting a staff, a violin on the other. Behind them a couple large sacks and a chair. Upstage center, a bench. The lighting was simple and precise: the stage would wash in red or blue in transitions, with only the necessary spaces illuminated. Subtle touches, like a strip of light focused on the thin side of the raised playing space, classed the proceedings up, but by and large it looked like a production that could have been done just about anywhere.

That is, of course, a point Brook has been making ever since the opening lines of The Empty Space:
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
The minimal staging allowed for the range of Beckett's writing, and Brook's actors, to shine through. First was "Rough for Theater I," a sort of Endgame lite, with two damaged characters--a blind man and a cripple--relying on and squabbling with each other. There is some lively repartee that the actors, longtime Brooks collaborator Bruce Myers and Yoshi Oida, were game for, the former suitably imposing, the latter at a disconnect due to his character's blindness. It makes a good introduction to Beckett and was an effective opener for the evening.

"Rockaby," easily the most difficult piece from an audience and actor standpoint, involves an aged woman (played by the young Hayley Carmichael) repeating sentences and phrases in varying permutations that, fittingly for a memory play, would tax any actress's capacity for memorization:
sitting at her window
quiet at her window
only window
facing other windows
only other windows
all eyes
all sides
high and low
time she stopped
I'll be honest and say I didn't "get" it, but I note that the stage directions call for the monologue to be pre-recorded, and for the actress to remain seated. Neither instruction was observed, to the play's benefit. The recursive twistiness of the language raised the stakes for the actor in a way that wouldn't exist in a recording. And having the woman rise during the third section quietly offers some hope, however dashed, amid the play's bleakness.

Brook is no stranger to changing a work to suit his purposes--his staging of Carmen was cut to ninety minutes--and so minor deviations to open up a piece are always welcome, Samuel Beckett Estate be damned.

"Act Without Words II" is a straight-up clowning piece, in which two persons, A and B, are "goaded" into getting out of the giant sacks they sleep in, putting on a suit, taking it off, moving their sack, and returning to it. It was heavy on physical comedy, with Oida's A shiftless and unfocused, and Myers's B bursting with athleticism. It was the funniest piece of the night, but again the mirth served to underscore the menace that comes forward at the end, with the realization that these two figures will be endlessly replaying the same routine.

"Neither," an adaptation of one of Beckett's poems, involved actress Hayley Carmichael timing her step and delivery to back-and-forth spotlight cues. There isn't a plot to speak of, naturally, barely a scenario, and so it was interesting to see how the decisive ambivalence of the piece's title would translate into physical action. (I say this knowing Brook knows "interesting" to be a nice way of saying 'I didn't like it.')

Finally there was "Come and Go," a brief piece involving three ladies on a bench gossiping whenever one is a way. It's cyclical in dialogue and movement, dependent on its performers having great timing and physical grace. That they did by now should go without saying; indeed the control they maintained over their voices and bodies was one of the most noticeable aspects of all the evening's performances. There was no better evidence of this than "Come and Go"'s concluding hand-hold, "in the old way," a striking image carried out with such smoothness one could hear the audience murmur in an admixture of surprise, amusement, and wonder.

If this sounds like a Samuel Beckett Variety Hour--the bickering couple, the memory play, the clowns, the dark poem, the repetitions--it was. By turns grim, tense, hilarious, mysterious and mystifying, Fragments was a document of Beckett's scope and, most critically, his sense of humor. Brook's as well. Both men are widely thought of as sages of the theater, and sages aren't allowed to be funny. The playbill says this production "caps" Brook's career of over 60 years, which suggests this may be his final outing. That he should use the occasion to remind audiences that wisdom is best paired with wit, shows him deserving his distinctions.


  1. OK. That all sounds much more fascinating than I tend to expect theater to be (yes, I'm one of *those* people. Movies & plays tend to bore me these days).

  2. Any particular reason plays bore you? Believe you me, inquiring minds want to know. That you think the same of the movies too makes your statement all the more fascinating.

  3. I'd blame it on years of videogaming, I guess ;). Or just changing the way I view my time, but I'm sure growing up on gaming had something to do with it.

    My time is more more limited these days, so I prefer to spend it where I will get the maximum enjoyment. Generally, for me, this is something I can get "involved" in actively... these days that means gaming or reading. Some may not view gaming this way, but hey, more power to them.

    Sitting through a movie/tv show/etc. these days can be like sticking something sharp under my fingernail. Even if the subject matter is really interesting, I'm still stuck with nothing to do with the rest of my body and "trapped" in someone else's timeframe.

    If I want intellectual stimulation, I can generally find that in books *and* i can consume it at my own pace. Visual mediums (plays being the worst in this regard because you can't pause for frequent bathroom breaks or to finish it later when you're not falling asleep) demand that you bow to their pace (I mean, you could watch a movie in FF, but that kind of defeats the point), and I'm not so into that these days.