Saturday, March 26, 2011

Not quite a meeting of the minds.
Like a lot of people, I'd always thought of Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett as kindred spirits. Both always seemed committed to a monkish spareness, and a determination to burn away distractions, to burrow down to the essentials of things.   Brook spurned more and more of the trappings of theatre as he aged, and Beckett's plays dwindled into "dramaticules" so concentrated that sometimes he seemed to be poised at the very edge of being, scraping at the basis of consciousness. But surprisingly enough, Fragments, Brook's whimsical treatment of various Beckett "shorts" and "roughs" at ArtsEmerson through April 3, somehow leaves you pondering the differences between these two giants rather than their similarities. For note that adjective "whimsical" - yes, I meant it, and it's not a word that's usually attached to Beckett. Not that the great Irish playwright isn't funny - in fact, he's hilarious. But is he whimsical?

Well, sometimes Brook, and co-director Marie-Hélène Estienne, almost convince you he is; and the lightness the director brings to opaque scraps of script like Neither isn't entirely unwelcome.  There's nothing worse than Beckett when it congeals into doom-ridden pretentiousness, that's for sure.  And Brook's spritzes of zen bemusement keep the production far from the dark, very still waters where so many productions drown.

Still, as you watch Fragments, you keep feeling that Brook doesn't really "get" Beckett, or rather that he keeps trying to tease the great playwright into his own modes of Grotowski-in-Asia stylization.  But Beckett's simply got more grit in his soul than Brook seems to realize; and what's more, Beckett is deeply religious, even though apparently an atheist - as one wag put it, Beckett's universe may be a godless one, but the god it's missing is Christian.  Meanwhile Brook kind of floats in the penumbrae cast by Buddhism and Hinduism (or something like that; did I mention Sufism? Zoroastrianism?).

So the tone is a bit odd, and then there's the problem of the changes Brook makes in Beckett's stage directions, even the very explicit, don't-change-this-under-any-circumstances stage directions.  Now I'm not one to cling to Beckett's prescriptions as holy writ - still, whenever a director asks me about this question, I always reply with the following: "Now remember Beckett was a genius - so ask yourself, am I a genius?"  I say this because time after time, when I see a Beckett production that hews closely to his instructions, I find it superior to one that was "experimental."  Now sure, maybe Brook is a genius, too - maybe - but still, Samuel Beckett had a phenomenally acute understanding of how his work would best be realized onstage.  You tinker with his instructions at your peril.

In Fragments, the greatest damage is done to Rockaby, the haunting late-career solo piece in which a lonely woman retreats completely from a seemingly-empty world into the rocking arms of death itself (in French, the original language of most of Beckett's work, the title of the play is Berceuse).  In their production, Brook and Estienne abandon almost all of Beckett's suggestions about props and costume; the weirdly glamorous funeral gown, the pre-recorded vocals (the actress onstage should only chime in occasionally), the chair that rocks itself - all this is gone, as are even the subtle divisions of the woman's descent from consciousness into, well, "apparent" death, as the playwright puts it.  (Does anyone ever really and truly die in Beckett?)

The results were, inevitably, thinner than they should have been - indeed, whole swaths of theme were just missing, and while actress Hayley Carmichael did her best with the text, she simply couldn't conjure its full, echoing dimensions.  Which is too bad, because as Rockaby is the greatest of the scripts on offer in Fragments, its failure counted for a lot. And there were other odd deviations from Beckett's directions that undermined the other, slighter pieces: in Act Without Words II, for instance, I believe Beckett even spells out that the seemingly divine prod that pokes his Didi- and Gogo-like protagonists must come from the wings (on ever more sets of wheels), rather than down from the flies - yet Brook brings it down from the flies anyway, which partly spoils the piece's central joke (that God is just as rickety, and just as determined, as we are).

Still, there were many moments in which Beckett's voice came through, in "fragments," as it were - and it's a voice that's always worth hearing (I personally place Beckett right after Chekhov in the pantheon). Actors Bruce Myers and Yoshi Oïda brought a withered comedy and calm pathos to Rough for Theatre I, which is a kind of variant on the themes (and characters) of Godot and Endgame (although neither actor had quite the level of desperate decline needed to conjure Didi on his way to Hamm, or Gogo on his way to Clov). Brook's methods seemed best suited to the wry vaudeville Act Without Words II, which played (as it should) as a Beckett's idea of a silent Buster Keaton movie. Best of all was Come and Go, which Brook staged explicitly as a light drag burlesque. I have to say that even here, the more exquisite qualities of Beckett's conception (its geometric perfection and eerie sense of timelessness) went missing; but at least the piece worked as comedy, and as a charming introduction to the playwright, as intended. I just thought that Peter Brook would intend more.

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