Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bill Camp in Beckett Shorts
(© Joan Marcus)
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bill Camp in Beckett Shorts
(© Joan Marcus)
Throughout his career Mikhail Baryshnikov has received rave notices. Well, here comes another. But this time, it's for doing what many dancers do as their dancing days wane: They gravitate towards mime roles. The shrewd folks at the New York Theater Workshop reckoned it would be a good idea to team Baryshnikov with director Joanne Akalaitis in Beckett Shorts, a mesmerizing group of four Samuel Beckett one-acts that barely require him to speak.

Baryshnikov, now a month shy of 60, has made a lifetime study of letting his body talk. He's still in great trim, and as expected, he moves beautifully. His walk alone is poetic -- of which great advantage is taken in Act Without Words I, the first of the included pieces. Baryshnikov is also something to watch when falling and climbing or just emerging from a green sack to put on some clothes and take them off again, as he's required to do in Act Without Words II. "The muscular legs, the muscular legs," a woman behind me whispered repeatedly to a companion.

The legs, hands, and torso are not the only aspects of Baryshnikov worth noting. There's also the expressive face that suggests planes on the Russian steppes; indeed, it may be that Akalaitis wanted Baryshnikov as much for his face as for his dancer's body. That face habitually registers something like a trace of concern, of disappointment, of something almost inconsolable. The temptation is to say he has the sorrowful look of a man who still mourns being torn for one reason or another from his roots.

Beckett and Baryshnikov share a significant similarity. Just as dance often deals with economically evocative movement, Beckett made himself the master of economical writing. In accordance with his existentialist views, these playlets distill existence to its essence. Act Without Words I is in the best Beckett I-can't-go-on-I-must-go-on tradition. It's nothing less than a portrait of man learning how to survive -- often despite himself. In it, Baryshnikov appears as a man guided by a recurring off-stage whistle to notice three different-sized boxes, a tree and a tantalizing pitcher of life-giving water. The inability of the man to grasp the just-out-of-reach pitcher leads him to consider hanging himself on the tree (which naturally calls the bare Waiting for Godot tree to mind.)

For the other three works, Baryshnikov shares the stage sequentially with a trio of accomplished Beckettians. Once he's climbed in and out of the green sack as A in Act Without Words II, B (David Neumann, performing with aplomb matching Baryshnikov) crawls out of a second green sack. He also performs a series of actions intended to summarize the average man's workaday routine. Then Baryshnikov starts the process again. This sketch is Beckett's knock at life's numbing patterns -- not so much I-must-go-on as I-just-go-on.

For Rough for Theatre I, blind fiddle-playing A (Baryshnikov) and wheel-chair-ridden B (Bill Camp, gritty and gruff) converse with and agitate each other, not unlike Godot's Vladimir and Estragon. Their afflictions are, of course, metaphors for the psychic wounds afflicting humanity that Beckett saw around him. In Eh Joe, Baryshnikov is glimpsed through a transparent show scrim. He sits on a bed while his face is revealed on the scrim in an ever-tightening close-up. On a chair a short distance away is Karen Kandel, who speaks with knowing authority as a woman whose accusatory thoughts Joe is imagining.

Each play is shown to full advantage in a streamlined production for which Alexander Brodsky has done the minimal set, Jennifer Tipton the lighting, and Darron L. West the sound. Philip Glass composed the appropriately minimal music and Mirit Tal produced the video work. Their collective contribution works elegantly throughout the evening, but it's at its most effective in the final work.

The four pieces take only 65 minutes to say their gloomy say, but they declare more -- thanks to Beckett, Baryshnikov, and colleagues -- about the human condition than other plays squander hours to reveal.