nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 15, 2007
I was very excited by the prospect of seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov in a bill of four short plays by Samuel Beckett, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis But having seen it, I must report that the program is substantially a disappointment.
The problem is, Baryshnikov gets to do very little of what we hope he will do. The first two pieces on the program—Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II—work very well: in them, Baryshnikov silently expresses the plight of an Everyman, first being knocked about as the joke of a seemingly prescient Higher Power, and then going through the motions of an endless, pointless, ever-hopeful life, stripped down to the barest of essentials. Baryshnikov is eloquent and touching in these plays, and in at least a few moments of the first—when he flings himself backwards onto the stage at intervals during AWWI, as if he's just been hit by an unseen super-sized flyswatter —he achieves just the kind of transcendence I was anticipating: who can sail through the air and land awkwardly on his back with the potency and grace of this performer?
A nod, by the way, to David Neumann, who plays the second character in AWWII and comes close to matching Baryshnikov there; and to whoever invented the long pointy finger-like gizmo that rouses both men's characters from their sleeps (presumably set designer Alexander Brodsky). What's great about both of the Acts Without Words is that they're poignant and spare and entirely accessible, and the humanity contained within them shines through brightly.
But all of this is missing from the remaining two items on the agenda. Rough for Theatre I, which feels like a Beckettian reaction to Albee's The Zoo Story, gives us Baryshnikov as a blind fiddler who has a weird brief encounter with a man in a wheelchair (Bill Camp). The complementarity of the two men fails to result in them actually finding a way to help each other; the point is obvious, but the journey there, at least as staged with plenty of eponymous roughness by Alkalaitis is painfully turgid. Jennifer Tipton's lighting for this piece—unchanging and just dim enough to make it uncomfortable to watch—doesn't help. There's no subtlety here, and little humor.
Eh Joe ends the show on a dismal note. It's a long monologue delivered by Karen Kandel, with Baryshnikov silent and unmoving (!) on a bed. A video of Baryshnikov's face is projected in front of the actors on a scrim; the camera work is interesting for about a minute and then fades into the dull sameness that characterizes the rest of this very monotonous piece. Tipton's lighting here is conducive for little other than napping, and I must confess that I found myself nodding off a couple times during Eh Joe. Hardly what I was hoping to have happen to me, and quite unintentional, but difficult to prevent under the circumstances.