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Peter Brook directs a superlative production of five short Samuel Beckett plays. logo
Marcello Magni in Fragments
(© Ernesto Rodrigues Agencia Estado)
Leave it to Peter Brook -- the legendary British theater director famous for his bare-bones staging of classic and avant-garde texts -- to out-minimalist Samuel Beckett with Fragments, an hour-long evening of five short plays by Beckett, now at the Jerome Robbins Theater.

The superlative production, co-directed by Brook's longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne, boasts electrifying performances from three members of London's Théâtre de Complicité, and a remarkably light touch to the often-grim and unsettling world of the landmark playwright.

And it does this with even fewer bells and whistles than one usually gets from Beckett the minimalist. Gone, for instance, is the trademark rocking chair and gray fright wig of "Rockaby." Instead, Kathryn Hunter is left with a simple wooden chair piece and her own shock of dark brown hair.

She delivers all of the richly poetic utterances of the script live, even though Beckett's stage directions call for 98 percent of those lines to be delivered via voiceover recording, as a kind of inner monologue for a dying woman trying to keep her inevitable fate at bay. The result here is a character who is seemingly more active in her destiny. The fact that she isn't truly -- this is Beckett's world of forlorn hopes, after all -- makes the struggle that Hunter's character wages all the more heartbreaking and theatrically compelling.

Another solo piece featuring Hunter, "Neither," was originally intended to be performed with an other-worldly, atonal score from the late experimental composer Morton Feldman. This has been eliminated as well, leaving Hunter nothing but the words, her own dynamic presence, and the simple but evocative lighting design of Philippe Vialatte.

"Rough for Theatre I" and "Act Without Words II," star Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, who gleefully reveal Beckett's love for classic vaudeville routines. Houben, in particular, is a clown of the first order, with the comic presence of Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, and the manic energy of such great Beckett veterans as Barry McGovern and Jack MacGowran.

He is matched by the talents of Magni, a co-founder of Complicité and himself a master minimalist. Their "Act Without Words," a hilarious study on the cycles of human futility, is a work of virtuosity that would have been perfectly at home on The Ed Sullivan Show.

All three performers come together for the evening closer, "Come and Go." In it, three faded women are interlocked in a cyclical dance to the grave. They are dressed similarly, but with a comical lack of attempt to disguise the masculinity of Houben and Magni, a bit of cross-gender casting that, coupled with the altered stage directions, represent an unusual openness on the part of Beckett's notoriously strict literary estate. How Brook got permission for all that is anyone's guess.

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