C.I.C.T. / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Texts by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Peter Brook and Marie Hélène Estienne
Performed by Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter, and Marcello Magni
By Tyler Plosia
Fragments is a selection of five Samuel Beckett shorts. They are chosen for juxtaposition: some call out waves of laughter, others demand silence (between whispers). A few of the plays are filled with such rapidly directed chatter that the words become less important than their cadences; one of the fragments has no words at all. Most importantly though, when put next to each other, side by side in front of a mid-Manhattan crowd, they are a reminder of the uniqueness of Beckett’s universality.
The sparseness of the spaces – both physically in front of the audience and imaginarily written into the world of the players – allows for the performance of Beckett to embrace language and movement, the two bare necessities. Even if there are no words, and even if there is almost unending stillness, the absence of such norms becomes the point of focus. What’s missing in the world of a Beckett play can become the play itself. As a result its reception is uncorrupted (and, in a way, not so easily assailable) in the ways so many of our more contemporary plays often are.
Back to Fragments. The direction by Peter Brook and Marie Hélène Estienne was obviously meant to highlight the humor of the writing. The casting, too, seemed to have the comedy in mind more than the tragedy. But in Beckett, there’s always both, they’re inseparable. Comedy and tragedy are like the blind beggar and the cripple in Rough for Theatre I (the first of the fragments): they may have seemed to have just met today, and there may be plenty of cynicism and even violence between the two, but we have the feeling they’ll be together again tomorrow.
While I was sitting there in my seat – a seat not separated from the next by any armrests or cupholders – I felt these short plays were being performed too much for laughter. Maybe I still do. But I also still recognized that singular bleakness I’d first found in the pages of Endgame when I read it years ago. And so what if the man next to me was laughing when I was cringing? Some of us groan when we wake up every day, some of us exercise (see: Act Without Words II, the third fragment). If these performances elicited only one kind of response, their universality would lose all of its wonderful uniqueness.
Fragments runs through May 5th at Baryshnikov Arts Center.