If you laugh at the abyss, the abyss laughs back at you.
Samuel Beckett was the funniest of the existentialists who took European thought by storm after the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War. He took the concept of absurdism quite literally, finding the hilarity of existence in an indifferent and vast universe. When there’s no point or purpose, what is there to say?
Sometimes, nothing. SCENA Theatre presents four short Beckett plays in “Beckett Shorts”. Two of them are silent and a third, while containing speech, has no interaction on stage.
The performers are fully in sync with their director’s vision and intent.
The best of the four is the first, 1957’s “Act Without Words I.” A man struggles to obtain an object as a mysterious force adds and removes both aids and impediments to the task. The man maintains his hope, but Beckett makes it clear that he is a fool to do so. Kim Curtis, a lithe performer in SCENA’s core company, brings an element of clowning to the role. His training as a professional dancer is evident in his movements.
“Act Without Words II”—actually first produced a year earlier—follows. Curtis again appears, alongside Lee Ordeman. The two play hobo types common in vaudeville and silent film, rising and going through exaggerated routines of daily monotony—Curtis with an easy good spirit and Ordeman with intense determination.
The first spoken words of the evening come in 1958’s “Rough for Theatre I,” wherein a blind fiddler played by Ron Litman is cajoled and tormented by wheelchair-bound Buck O’Leary. The stranger’s harassment of the musician seems driven by nothing more than boredom, a show of the casual cruelty that humankind can revel in, for no reason at all.
The last playlet of the set is “Eh Joe,” a piece for television that debuted in 1966. Litman appears seated at center stage as Joe, an older man caught in a waking nightmare as a disembodied voice taunts him with memories of his past, his sins, and his failings. Stacy Whittle does impeccable voice work, flowing from kind to hateful and back again with ease. Litman is tasked with keeping the audience attentive for some 15 minutes just by shifting his facial expressions. Both performers are compelling, but the conceit begins to tire before Joe’s ordeal is ended.
Director Robert McNamara has staged Beckett many times before and shows a felicity with the difficult material. Many SCENA productions emphasize the visual over the aural, making the silent, short plays the standouts. It is also quite clear that this is a company that has worked together for a long time. The performers are fully in sync with their director’s vision and intent.
The DC Arts Center space in Adams Morgan is a compact black box with brick walls and visible wear in the playing space. This works to the production’s advantage: The space itself bears some of the weariness and resignation that is at the crux of these plays. It also permits a level of intimacy that could not be achieved in a larger space, as when Litman’s fiddler lunges out into the house on a misdirection from O’Leary’s cackling bully.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“Beckett Shorts” runs through July 16, 2022 at the DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington 20009. For tickets and information, click here. NOTE: Patrons are not required to show proof of vaccination, but must wear masks throughout the performance.