Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Happy Days features one of his best-known characters, Winnie, a woman who, despite being buried in the ground up to her waist, manages to stay hopeful throughout an endlessly repetitive life. But in some of his shorter, lesser-known plays, Beckett wrote equally fascinating female characters whose stories ought to be heard more often.
Irish Arts Center is now providing a rare opportunity to hear those voices. Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, and Come and Go are now being presented in a mesmerizing production staged in an old piano warehouse in Hell's Kitchen. Hauntingly beautiful and brilliantly performed under the title Beckett in the City: The Women Speak, these plays are must-see gems.
Sarah Jane Scaife directs four works performed throughout several dimly lit rooms that are initially illuminated by projections of three actresses — Bríd Ní Neachtain, Joan Davis, and Michèle Forbes — as they wander, lost in thought, through the corridors of an old building in Ireland. These quiet, despair-filled images (designed by Kilian Waters) create an uncanny connection between the warehouse in New York and the building in Ireland while setting the tone for the mournful plays that follow.
Not I takes place in a dark room where only a mouth (Neachtain), illuminated by a single ray of light, and a silent auditor (Davis) are visible as a torrent of words pour forth from the tortured consciousness of a woman as she rapidly relates incidents from her past. In the ghostly Footfalls, a woman (Forbes) paces endlessly back and forth across a strip of light as she speaks with her ailing mother.
Rockaby features Davis as an elderly woman who rocks away what remains of her life with a quiet resignation of the world. And in Come and Go, the most humorous of the plays, three old friends sit side by side and gossip about each other, yet as they hold hands, they find a sense of unity and continuity in one another's company.
These works include some of the most provocative and beautiful images in modern theater, and Scaife's direction makes them achingly resonant in the warehouse's large empty rooms. Perhaps most exquisite is John Comiskey's extraordinary lighting design, especially in Rockaby, during which subtle shadows pass across the face of the woman as she quietly rocks herself out of this life. Sinéad Cuthbert's costumes are equally evocative, particularly the colorful but faded coats and face-covering hats that create an unforgettable, timeless image of the three women at the end of Come and Go.
Beckett in the City is a superb opportunity to experience four minor masterpieces in an evocative, nontraditional venue — an inspired choice of location that makes this 85-minute show memorable. These tender and tragic depictions of women rank among Beckett's best creations, and this exquisite production allows their profound, poetic voices to be heard.
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