By SARAH NORRIS
Director JoAnne Akalaitis, former artistic director of the Public, has never been a purist when directing Samuel Beckett’s plays. In 1984, the playwright attempted to shut down her production of “Endgame” because she ignored his stage directions and opted to set the play in a subway station. But at New York Theater Workshop, she succeeds in tying together the pieces of these four one-acts, written between 1956 and 1965, post-“Waiting for Godot,” forming a cohesive if entirely depressing sequence of situations.
In the first, “Act Without Words I,” Mikhail Baryshnikov’s character, Man, doesn’t enter of his own volition. Rather, he is thrust onstage by an unseen push. Blanketed by white sand and illuminated with “dazzling light,” the set is a desert, onto which Man collapses. A whistle sounds from the right wing and he hurries doglike toward the call before again being tossed backwards into the desert. Alas, there will be no great escape.
A palm tree, suspended on wires, descends to the stage, followed by a gigantic pair of scissors, with which Man trims his nails in the shade, before the shade disappears. The same shrill whistle accompanies the appearance of each object: a glass carafe of water and three boxes, sizes large, medium and small. He precariously stacks the boxes with the biggest on top, attempts to scramble up, and then tumbles to the ground. Watching him reverse the order is reminiscent of “Sesame Street.” Unlike the world occupied by Henson’s kid-friendly puppets, however, these rules stipulate that as soon as Man figures out how to use the articles, they are rescinded. Even his suicide attempt, by hanging on the lone bough of the tree, is thwarted by sudden wilting. In the end, Man stands by himself in the empty desert, staring at his hands.
“Act Without Words,” both One and Two, represent the stronger half of the shorts. This largely stems from Baryshnikov’s greatest asset as an actor his physicality which is on full display until the last two plays, “Rough for the Theatre 1” and “Eh Joe.” The musculature of his calves captivates more, unfortunately, than the timbre of his voice as a blind wretch, and the pre-filmed nuances of his facial expressions as Joe.
The good news is that speechless, armed with only bare hands, Baryshnikov remains a revelation. Beckett scripted silent one-acts such as these specifically for clowns, whose exaggerated movements imbued the existentialism with hilarity. The final two plays, however, demand exhaustive and uncomfortable attention to misery.
Hung with closed Venetian blinds and buried with sand, the set evokes Beckett’s minimalist desolation. Following his recent superlative performance in “The Misanthrope” at NYTW, Bill Camp astonishes as a cripple possessing violent contradictory desires for intimacy and independence. Actors David Neuman and Karen Kandel do an able job, and music by Philip Glass punctuates the haunting aspects of these plays, most notably in “Act Without Words II” as an accompaniment to a giant alligator-like spear that rolls onstage to awaken the slumbering characters.
By now, Beckett’s morbid humor has been ingrained into modern culture, but it’s not immediately clear that these one-acts not so much stories as they are mercilessly brief and vivid flashes of characters in states of despair possess equal resonance today as they did 50 years ago. In viewing the first play, for instance, the audience recognizes Man’s every grasping effort as if watching one’s own life reflected in a fun house mirror. It comes as a blessed relief and release to laugh, collectively, before streaming outside into the dark, to debate the hopelessness of Man’s condition.