Sunday, December 23, 2007

Beckett Shorts with Mikhail Barishnikov

The New York Theatre Workshop production of Beckett Shorts sounded like it was to good to be true. I mean, how many times do you get a 5-time Obie award winning director (JoAnee Akalaitis) paired with the one-and-only Mikhail Barishnikov performing the work of the greatest playwright of the 20th century? One of the great things about New York is finding out about this production by walking down the street one afternoon, seeing a little sandwich board ad for this phenomenal event outside the theater, strolling into the lobby and buying tickets for four great seats for the first show after opening night.
Which meant the reviews were out that morning. After lavishing praise onto Pinter's "The Homecoming" three days earlier,  the same three top NYC reviewers shook their collective heads and gave an overall thumbs down to the Beckett pieces. I'm not sure why. To me they were extraordinarily performed and conceived.

From the moment you enter the theater, you're swept away into another world. A world where shapes of light shift and shake on a full stage scrim behind which, you can make out the silhouette of a low-slung desert sand dune landscape. As the scrim rises the landscape lights up to an even more bleak desert visage onto which Barishnikov is suddenly thrown in Act Without Words I. He wanders, stunned and confused. An exit appears in a side wall. From off stage, a whistle: like a dog owner calling their pet pooch. He stumbles to the exit gets part way through it, and is thrust back into the desert. A series of learned responses follows as different objects appear, each accompanied by the same whistle: that a palm tree offers shade; a pair of scissors can cut fingernails; blocks can be used to sit on; put together they can provide access to a just-out-of-reach pitcher of water. Almost. 

The force that brought us to this earth offers no guarantees about being able to maintain our happiness. All we are ultimately left with is ourselves--in the world of Beckett, everything else--even nourishment--is illusion. We live, we die, and in-between, we delude ourselves. Only a playwright of Beckett's stature could find the humor in this. And with Akalitis direction of Misha, the clear point comes across that a man, no: this man, is only able to maintain some degree of his own humanity by refusing to listen to the encouraging whistles of any exterior source, be it for food, comfort, or even a means of ending life itself.

Between each short work, the scrim lowered and images from the previous drama played across it to the accompanying Glass soundtrack, reflecting the resonating images that were playing in my brain.  Or were they focusing the scope of such images?Restraining them, perhaps? Hard to say, because, without much delay the scrim opened on new desert landscape, onto which two body-like shapes appeared like corpses under shrouds. Were they dead? No, it turns out. A giant metal arrow-like form slowly inches in from the left side, proding the first lump it reaches into action. And what action! A little stretching, a little toothbrushing, a little eating, then a look around to try to figure out how to make the cause of action happen to someone else next time. As in the first piece, it was hard to take your eyes off Barishnikov as he provided the physical dialog of a man willing to endure suffering in his life if out of nothing more than habit and the sometimes comical instinct to survive.

The next short brought actual dialog into the mix--or rather, it brought the dark poetic musing of Beckett's mind into speech, and allowed the incredible Barishnikov to speak, as an itinerent blind violin player talking to an occsionally mad, wheelchair bound Bill Camp. Like two clowns, the pair illustrated the idea that, given complete free will, few will accept or even seek out beauty or peace, for the sole reason that it is more effort than it's worth, and that to endure the tyranny of day-to-day routine is preferable, because it is predictable.

Beckett's "Eh, Joe," the only piece Beckett ever wrote specifically for televion, closed the evening with an incredible four-dimensional staging that brought to the forefront the power of live theater. Barishnikov, seated on a bed in a squalid room with the voice of the woman he drove to suicide. This time, the dialog was pure poetry, and different from anything I've ever imagined could be on television. The sexual imagery was shrouded like death is in life: hidden, yet present; structuring every move. While I agree with reviewers that the physical onstage presence of the woman--Karen Kandel--was unnecessary (Beckett's script calls for a voice only), her acting, with an economy of movement, was mesmerizing. 

The front scrim stayed down during this piece, and every movement of Barishnikov's face was enlarged and projected on it. Or was it a live projection? Audience members I spoke to afterwards were all certain it was a "live" projection, I swear, I saw a few minor differences between the projected images and the man on stage, which made the experience that much more stunning. Also images projected on the rear walls, which at first glance appeared to be the same as the extreme enlargement on the front scrim, at times, they were a little different as well. 

The question arose: What is reality? The voice in your head? the image you project to other people? the reflection you see of yourself in a mirror? No, the only reality is the actual person sitting there, breathing, living on the bed. Everything else is illusion. That is why the presence of the woman took away from what was otherwise an extraordinary piece. Because she was present, and speaking, her voice itself had to be defined as reality as well, and the idea of the solitary experience of life was somewhat blurred. 

Still, when this last piece built to its climax, and the lights went out, I couldn't leave my seat for a long while. It was a rare and extraordinarily moving theatrical experience that I only wish was possible on the stages of New York more often.

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