Texts by Samuel Beckett
Produced by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord
Directed by Peter Brooke and Marie Helene Estienne
Paramount Mainstage Theater
I arrived early enough to be the first to enter the Paramount Theater’s house for Samuel Beckett’s Fragments, a series of five short plays. And because I was first, I was able to take in the empty expanse of the Art Deco theater and the sweep of seats that spread down to the waiting stage, giving me a feeling in that large space that I was very small and insignificant, and that I was the only person left on earth. Maybe that’s the way every audience member should enter a theater before Beckett: feeling small and alone and insignificant; because Beckett, even when he’s being light and funny, is still reminding us that we are those things.
I took my seat and let my eyes wander over the set. Waiting for the play to start is sometimes my favorite part of going to the theater. With a BFA in photography, I continue to make images and experience the world visually, and this night making images was like shooting fish in a barrel. The elements were placed on the stage in a way that made their visual appearance balanced and quiet and waiting. Not one piece overshadowed another. There were no set pieces that rose in levels; nothing that swept the eye around the stage, or no immense clutter that foretold impending pandemonium on stage. The set took on the quiet, contemplative nature of a Japanese garden. A soft rose-colored light that lit the upstage, and an equally soft white light that lit farther downstage to the apron soothed the eyes. Black boxes situated downstage melded with white bags farther upstage, their total effect was reminiscent of the sign for yin and yang: hard and soft, black and white. The lighting allowed my eyes to easily move from one part of the stage to another part without jarring, and what the total effect of the set told me was that I could anticipate something sparse and quiet and contemplative and balanced. I thought about breaths, of taking breaths between what was being said, feeling that nothing I was going to hear that night was going to be rushed. What was even more fascinating about the set was that as the play progressed and set pieces were finished being utilized for each individual vignette, they were quietly removed by the actors, and the remaining pieces rebuilt another balanced visual, so that the feeling of balance pervaded the entire play, and also me.
The lights dimmed, the audience silenced itself, and the two male actors entered quietly. They took their time settling themselves on the black boxes downstage. Yoshi Oida, an older man about 70 years old, picked up a violin and sat quietly: He was about to play a blind musician. Bruce Myers, also an older actor, adjusted and readjusted his leg on which he sat: He was about to play a one-legged man. The care and time with which the actors took to prepare caused me to focus acutely on what I was watching, which is an interesting interpretation of Beckett’s work: To focus on the minute, seemingly insignificant experiences of this reality we call life and what it means.
I knew that traditionally Beckett is known for his depressing view of the world, and that he espoused the notions that humans are alone and that life is basically meaningless. All that was apparent in the writing. What was such a refreshing surprise for me was the direction that brought lightheartedness and sometimes downright hilarity to the plays. The comedic touches were performed in a very innocent, disarming way. In Rough for the Theater I, in which one character was blind and the other disabled, the blind character, upon realizing that the other character was missing a leg, wondered in a delightful and childish way if he was missing any other parts of his anatomy—specifically his penis. The actors in Act Without Words II performed in the style of a silent film, one reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and the other at the frenetic pace of The Keystone Cops.
Another play, in which the three actors all played female characters (that, in itself, tickled me because Oida and Myer had already established themselves as self-deprecating; more on this in just a little bit) sat on a bench, and when each took a turn leaving, the other two gossiped about the third. The humor came from realizing the pattern that developed, along with the reaction of the actor whose turn was third. The actor and the audience realized simultaneously what was happening and I felt an affinity with the actor at his or her plight; we’ve all been isolated or set apart, and I found myself laughing in the sense that “if I didn’t laugh I’d be crying.” The humor always was unexpected and enjoyable in the moment. I liked what it did to me, and how I responded to it. While I entered the theater expecting to see the traditional Beckett and the business about life being meaningless as a serious subject, I was relieved and thankful that I was being shown something new. I did question it, though, wondering if this was a valid interpretation of Beckett, or a new interpretation based on some sort of sea change in society. At one point I thought I shouldn’t be laughing at, or even along with, these characters because when people are in pain and make light of themselves in a self-deprecating way, they are allowed to laugh, but you the observer really aren’t.
It wasn’t all laughs, though. In Rockaby, a one-character play, Hayley Carmichael conveyed the despair of being alone while sitting in a chair and looking out her window, speaking her lines as though they were the measured beats of a poem. It was touching and heart-breaking. Something interesting about my reaction to this piece, though, was that it was entirely absent of humor, but I felt set up by the previous plays like a batter in a baseball game, looking for that comic fastball down the center of the plate that never came, but instead was out on a called strike delivered on a dramatic change up.
For me it was hard to find a common thread among the plays. I’m guessing that it was that each play hinged on a small human act. In Rough for Theatre I, the play about the blind musician and the cripple, the two characters started out alone, and then attempted to join forces to make their way through the world, yet despite their best attempts ended up apart again, but not before the cripple asked the blind man to do one small favor: cover his foot with a blanket because it was cold. Again I felt that aloneness, that smallness I felt when I first entered the theater.
Act Without Words II depicted the two male characters who slept in the white sacks. A sharpened pole descended jabbing one awake. That character got up, dressed in a suit of clothes that lay in a pile nearby, then he took them off and climbed back into his sack. The other actor was then prodded awake and acted out the same thing. The message seemed to be that while we share the same clothes and rituals, i.e. the same kinds of lives, we are still separate and disconnected. By this point in the night the humor was still there, but I was receiving it more quietly, with what I can only imagine can be called a wry smile on my face.
It was a wonderful night of theater. The initial promise delivered by the set that I was in store for an evening of quiet and contemplation proved true. And I was happy to leave the theater just as I walked into it, alone, and walk to the subway with the feeling that I believe Beckett would have wanted me to have: that I was alone and I have somehow come to terms with that in my life.