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Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby

Critics' pick
Photograph: John Haynes

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby. BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Walter Asmus. With Lisa Dwan. Running time: 1hour 5mins. No intermission.

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby: In brief

Lisa Dwan stars in a trio of bleak experimental 1970s shorts by Samuel Beckett, in a solo production that won rapturous reviews in London earlier this year. Walter Asmus directs this Next Wave Festival offering.

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby: Theater review by Helen Shaw

Hail, Samuel Beckett, dark master of the atmospheric! Worshippers, approach! And those who are not in this particular religious order: Perhaps you should take a step back. The BAM Harvey season doubles down on Beckett, following up Embers with an evening of solo works: Not I (1972), Footfalls (1975) and Rockaby (1980) performed by the Irish actor Lisa Dwan. For those of us who try not to miss anything at BAM, this gives the Next Wave Festival a rather tidal feeling. The yawning pit of human despair is opening again! Must be Tuesday.

Dwan's showcase arrives on its own tide—glowing press, thrilled Beckett relatives, a director (Walter Asmus) who worked at Beckett's shoulder. Even Beckett's muse and best interpreter, Billie Whitelaw, “tutored” Dwan; the show's bona fides are scrawled everywhere you look. What it doesn't consistently have, though, is the magical, drugging quality that can make the plays so startling. Even in this short trio of works, the evening turns dawdling and even a little mawkish. Reverence, that classic-killing carefulness, hangs so thick you can feel it in the air.

Dwan does start with a bang. In the vertiginously disorienting Not I, Beckett created one of the great 20th-century stage images: a play for a woman's mouth. Seen through a tiny hole, hovering, spotlighted lips gabble forth one of Beckett's most disturbing monologues, in which a woman riffles through thoughts, epiphanies (or seizures) and a life lived without speaking. “All the time the buzzing…” the voice complains, as it jumbles together images and memories. What has happened to this strange woman, whose voice can only describe experience in the third person? The words could be the flashing avalanche of all a life's words being spent as the brain dies—but we don't ever find out.

If you already know the play, you'll recognize brief bursts of it, but since it is taken here at ridiculous speed—nearly twice as fast as it's customarily performed—it crosses over into a strange sort of assault. Dwan crushes out all the hovering quasi-meanings that Beckett kept aloft in the monologue: There's no reverie, no revelation, only language turned into a flat texture of chatter and grunts. This text-defeating strategy turns the monologue into a high mosquito whine, a sound that's enormously irritating to the senses. I mean this both as complaint and praise: It feels like a performance in which I was being struck in the face, which is dead appropriate for Beckett.

The subsequent pieces are much less interesting in Dwan's hands: Footfalls, the dreamy, pacing interplay between a woman and her dying (or dead) mother, then Rockaby, in which a woman rocks her way into a bitter death. In the first, Dwan performs to a recording of herself as the mother, which flattens her performance; the work doesn't seem to cost her anything. Of course, it's astounding she can do anything at all after Not I; most performers would have to taxi straight home and lie down. Also, it's not her fault that we've just had the great Kathryn Hunter come through performing Rockaby, in which you felt the words were being dragged out of her physically, delivered breech by a cruel doctor. The lovely, measured, slightly mopey Dwan can't compare, since her technique only points at age and loneliness. In her gentler hands, the character's eventual death winds up looking suspiciously like a nap.

And now, straight talk. Even though I felt the triple bill wasn't altogether electric, I recommend you go, simply for Beckett, for the opportunity to see three classics of his micro-hallucination genre. They aren't exactly the rarest of his catalog, but how often do we see them? My grudgingness was by no means universal. The audience responded in two ways: hearty opera-style bravos and flat-out snoozing. (It was fatal to end with Rockaby, the lullaby that many in my section really did not need.) I didn't envy the shouters, but I did envy the sleepers. Since Beckett operates on the knife's edge between nightmare and wakefulness, perhaps the unconscious watchers were actually having the perfect experience. Maybe Beckett's black imaginings impinged on their dreams, oozing in half-heard and stealthy. As one who stayed awake, I'm afraid that I left with my subconscious notably untroubled—and that's a night with the wizard, wasted.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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