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October 21, 2013
Review: A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett
Photo: James Wade
Photo: James Wade

“A Mind-Bending Evening of Beckett”, three short plays all by the Irish great, is now being shown at the Irish Repertory Theatre, and for good reason.  The first piece, "Act Without Words" — about a Sisyphus-like figure on an island — is performed entirely by a puppet.  It is quite incredible.  The second piece, "Breath", in which the stage is overcome with literal garbage, seems to be saying something about the desolate nature of life (although I’m not sure what); and the third, "Play", shows us three people — one man and two women — up to their necks in their own crematorium urns, as they recount the love triangle that bound them in life.

In all of these pieces, austerity and bare theater is the palette.  And because it is so barren, the slightest moment telegraphs the utmost meaning and depth.  The puppet in "Act Without Words", whose face of course never changes, reveals such incredible meaning simply by leaning forward, or staring at his hands.  This barren style places us in a kind of theatrical vacuum, in which the audience is forced to fill the void with meaning.

(That puppet, by the way, much to the chagrin of actors everywhere, is more heartbreaking than most actors I’ve seen in a long, long time -- perhaps because unlike so many live actors, the puppet did so little rather than so much.  We watch him lie on the earth, simply breathing, and it's breathtaking.  While I enjoyed all of the pieces, the performers' skill in puppetry is the real reason to see this show.)

In "Play", a man, his wife, and his mistress all speak in rapid-fire dialogue, recounting the love triangle that tangled up their lives.  They tell the same story three times in a row, with little variation, and yet the actors speak at such break-neck speed that it is difficult to get anything but the barest gist of their story.  Still, as you hear this little human tragedy repeated over and over, it begins to seep into your brain by way of osmosis.  Slowly, the full picture takes shape, and becomes an incredible metaphor for life:  you make the same mistake over and over and over again your whole life, without learning anything, until you finally get to be 105 and realize, “Aha!  I’m falling in love with the wrong person!  That’s my mistake!”  And then you die.  Bleak, yes; but beautiful.

In between these two plays is "Breath".  In this play, we hear the sound of breathing and wailing, all set to the backdrop of a landfill.  I’m not sure what it meant, but I understood what they were saying.  This mood is the thread linking the three seemingly unrelated pieces: while each play is imbued with Beckett's typical bleakness, they are also infused with the sad-bastard hope of “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” that also pervades all of Beckett’s writings.  The only thing sadder than Beckett’s insistence that we can’t go on, is that we must.

The talent of this production shows, particularly in Bob Flanagan’s direction: the decision to mount the first piece is using puppetry is wonderful.  Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, meanwhile, is the standout actor of the production (as Woman 2 in "Play").  And although I did not particularly love all of the plays — the first was my favorite, the second didn’t interest me much, and I liked the third — I respected what was achieved and what was being said in each.  That's a lot more than I can say for most plays I’ve seen lately.

Seeing this show, it is easy to see why Beckett is still performed.  The actors, the designers, and the director all clearly worked exceptionally hard, and then they did the most incredible thing: they stepped out of the way of the play, and let the writing alone.  In a theater culture of flash and pomp that is so pervasive these days, this kind of bare-bones respect of the written word makes this production a piece quite worthy of viewing.

Performances continue through December 1.  See our full event listing here:

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Written by: Ean Kessler
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