Love Beckett or hate him, you aren't likely to find a crisper collection of his short plays produced anywhere; from JoAnne Akalaitis's firm direction to Philip Glass's foreboding compositions to Alexander Brodsky's bleak sandbox of a set, these plays -- a few no more than fragments -- seem fully realized, even if their messages still may not come fully into focus for the casual theatergoer. Still, for those who do not wish to sift through that stark desert sand, who do not want to find the hopeful yes that may be buried beneath all of those dissolute nos, there's at least an outstanding cast to watch: Bill Camp ("Rough for Theater I") and Karen Kandel ("Eh Joe") provide riveting interpretations of Beckett's text, and Mikhail Baryshnikov uses his physical grace to work as a mime in "Act Without Words I" and "Act Without Words II" (he's joined here by David Neumann), and as a soulful face caught in haunting contemplations, hinging the work with economical motion.
The curtain -- a wall of projected, randomized light -- wrinkles upward to reveal a desert and a man (Baryshnikov). Surrounding him are walls of solid shuttered blinds, save for two open exits to the wings and a photo-delayed projection of the stage along the back right wall, an effect that elicits the inescapable feel of a panopticon (which, if you believe in God, is what Earth is). In the bright light, our symbolic Everyman cannot hide, and simply does as commanded, following a shrill whistle, even as it continues to take advantage of him. In a series of comical events, the man attempts to obtain a floating carafe of water, but the deck is stacked against him: when he finally stacks two cubes together to reach the water, it rises ever higher. And when he gives up and looks to the other use of his tools -- to use his rope as a noose rather than a lasso -- even the tree folds up its branch and dangles tantalizingly out of reach. This piece, "Act Without Words I" is the perfect introduction to the plays, accessible to anyone who has ever drawn a single breath.
Its successor, "Act Without Words II," is also fairly representative of the human condition: two men sleep tightly wrapped in their green burlap sacks, on a narrow strip (one's lifeline, perhaps). Every so often, a goad rolls in from stage left, poking the closest sack until it gets up and works. The men never meet, but share the same clothes (and the same rotting carrot), each dragging the other's sack a little further stage right, living their routines in unremarkable repetition. Here, Akalaitis uses an ominous theme of Glass's like that of Jaws, turning the sure and steady appearance of the goad into a larger meditation on that lurking force that forces us to go on.
From here, the play skips a few years ahead (from 1956) to one of Beckett's sketches of humanity, "Rough for Theater I." Like his most memorable work, Waiting for Godot, we find two lovable losers stranded in the middle of a cold and twilight desert; one is a blind fiddler (Baryshnikov), the other a wheelchair-bound cripple (Camp). In a sobering dialogue, the two both describe the other as a "poor wretch," and yet they have so much to offer one another, even if it is nothing more than companionship. Camp's boisterous character, who brags of pushing himself idly between points A and B, sees a little bit of his dead son in the fiddler, while the fiddler, who has found a simple peace in being still, angrily insists "I am not unhappy enough!" when suicide is broached. What's remarkable here is the way the quiet kindness of an old man's knee turns to such a violent cliffhanger, a key twist that Akalaitis simply provides to the audience, without any attempt to explain.
The final piece, "Eh Joe" was originally produced as a 1965 film, but is done here (as in Dublin, 2006) as a staged piece, with the film's content (a gradually closer and closer steady shot of Joe's unwaveringly heavy face) projected onto a scrim while the actors sit behind the ghostly light in their own private isolations. Baryshnikov sits upright on a bed with hardly a movement at all, entranced by the voice of a Woman (Kandel) that constantly accuses him, snidely, of being a heartless man, a man now trapped in "that penny farthing hell you call your mind," as he contemplates his old age ("Sit there in his stinking old wrapper hearing himself") and loneliness ("Anyone living love you now, Joe?"). The play proceeds with a steady, wearying rhythm that could very well be the erosion of the mind, and thanks to the staging, we can now see the Woman, too, as she rises from her chair and eventually crawls through the stand, whispering harshly by the end of things, speaking of memory and imagination, until finally, with the picture gone out of focus -- death presumably come at last (one interpretation pegs the nine movements of the camera as the nine levels of hell) -- the lights go out.
There's a lot to digest in these four plays, each a distinct glimpse at some hopefully hopeless measure of the human condition. Akalitis has placed them in chronological order, which gives insight into the focus of Beckett's work -- from highly physical to almost entirely vocalized and internal. She also manages to use Jennifer Tipton's lighting to tell a further story with the plays: the start is life, all bright and full of questioning experimentations, the middle and later years grow darker and darker, and by the final scene, the stage is almost entirely dark, lit only by the pallid glow of the actor's own face, projected back at him. Despite being barely seventy minutes long, it's a full-bodied work that thoroughly explores (in miniature) some of Beckett's best.