Brief Beauties

There is a tremendous fusion of talent in this New York Theater Workshop offering of Beckett Shorts. The production, which features four one-act plays by Samuel Beckett (two of which are completely silent), sprouted from a 2006 workshop under the direction of Joanne Aklaitis, and features refined staging and acting. But it is the subtle and inspired choices in set, lighting, sound, video and costume design that transform it into a feast for the senses. Whether, in the made-for television short "Eh Joe," watching split-second thoughts register in the soulful eyes and facial tics of Mikhail Baryshnikov (as Joe) in a video close-up projected onto the curtain (behind which he is visible sitting listlessly on his bed), or listening to the gorgeous voice of actress Karen Kandel, as she narrates Joe’s interior monologue in alternately caressing and accusatory tones, the effect is powerful and minute.

Also eerie but effective are the thin V-shaped rivets of sand that funnel hauntingly over and down from the elevated ridge in “Act Without Words II” to join the beach that is Alexander Brodsky’s stunning set. Lit with implicit bleakness by Jennifer Tipton, it is hemmed in by a sea of surrounding window blinds. All closed, of course.

Who could resist the sly humor of a palm tree descending from the ceiling to open like a beach umbrella? Or the effortless physicality that Baryshnikov displays when falling sideways in the Charlie Chaplin like meditation on thwarted desire that is “Act Without Words I?” There is much left open for individual interpretation in the visual complexity of these silent plays from an author whose view of human nature was so often grim.

What is the meaning, after all, of the ominous Phillip Glass music playing as a giant metal arrow prods two humans pods along the assembly line of time/routine much as an avid spermatazoid would prod an egg? For this reviewer, it seemed an appropriate choice to reflect Beckett's known view of habit and routine as "a cancer of time."

Regardless of what an audience fills into the silences and symbolism of Beckett, one thing about this particular production is certain. Even its smallest design details convey an undercurrent of mortality and claustrophobia that remains consistent throughout the show.

Waning fall foliage is suggested by the earth tones of Kaye Voyce’s spot-on costume design in “Rough For Theater 1,” which first introduces the human voice into the performance. In this play, an old man with one leg who is bound to a wheelchair (a voracious Bill Camp) befriends a blind musician, with questions like, “What befell you? Women? Gambling? God?”

For some, Beckett is an acquired taste, and this production doesn't spare its audience the full impact of arguably depressing themes. Yet the blending together of so many astute and excellent theater elements in doing so, makes it an evening you don't want to miss.

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