How It’s New York: The show takes place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which is not only a relatively new dance space, but of course it’s named for and run by that famous New Yorker, Mikhail Baryshnikov. The rainy night I went it was completely sold out, and the priviliged, cultured crowd laughed their heads off.
How It’s Irish: Samuel Beckett is one of the country’s most famous dramatists. John Hurt stars in a production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at BAM next week.
Beckett was a comedian. Fragments, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, in a joint C.I.C.T./ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production, proves it. If the thought of seeing a Beckett play depresses you, you really need to see this production. It’s sad the way Chaplin was sad, and funny the way Chaplin was funny. Which is to say, you’ll be laughing too much to realize you’re also sad, until later.
Seeing these short Beckettian plays done in this gorgeous dance space (BAC has only been open as a theatre since 2008) highlights Beckett’s dark use of physical comedy. People with one leg, he insists, are funny. Getting dressed and undressed is funny.
You might think of Beckett as heavy and it’s true his theme is usually death and the futility of life. But people, he suggests, really are a hoot (this is even more clear in his comic novels with their liberal to the point of absurd use of digressions and parenthetical observations).
Three actors, Joe Houben, Marcello Magni, and Kathryn Hunter, perform four short Beckett works: “Rogh for Theatre I;” “Rockaby;” “Act Without Words II;” “Neither;” and “Come and Go.” Houben and Magni are magnificent clowns; Houben taller and more elegant; Magni rougher and earthier. Hunter has a plummy voice and a worried expression that makes even “Rockaby,” with its plaintive refrain “More” (famously performed by Billie Whitelaw) comic in its need, as well as sad. The actors have performed extensively with England’s famous physical troupe Théâtre de Complicité.
Peter Brook is one of theatre’s most acclaimed living directors, and in this piece you can see why. He lets the words shine through the physical gags so that they are all of a piece.
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The highlight of the fragments is “Act Without Words II.” The action is simple: two men in giant bags are poked by an unseen limb (in this case, a giant prop descending from the ceiling; watching it slowly descend is another site gag). First one leaves the bag, gets dressed, eats part of a carrot, tries to move the bag and gets back in, and then the other does. At the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival last year, the action took place in an alley and the men were imagined as homeless men. It was gloomy, somewhat affecting.
Here it’s hilarious. The men are funny, optimistic, as different as can be. It may be the Tantalus myth, but it’s laughable, Beckett seems to say. Watching them chew and spit out the carrot, put on pants backwards, hop in and out of shoes is mime at its best—dear, amusing and poignant. Like the evening itself.
If you can still get a ticket, it’s not to be missed.
Through Dec. 4 at Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 37th St. at 10th Avenue. Tickets online or via phone at 866-811-4111.