From Tuesday, June 26 until Friday the 29th, you have a rare chance to catch one of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s most absorbing plays, Act Without Words II, performed nightly at 9 p.m. at Theatre Alley (between Nassau and Centre Street) in New York.
Directed by Sarah-Jane Scaife, one of Ireland’s most preeminent interpreters of his work, Act Without Words II was written in the late 1950s, and is a deeply absorbing and unforgettable meditation on existence that reminds us that although the plight of humanity is ultimately absurd, there’s some consolation to be had in the realization that it is shared.
For Scaife, who has directed and lectured on Beckett all over the world from China to India and Greece to Mongolia, this production is literally the work of a lifetime, as she directed in one guise or another over three decades since she first came to New York to study mime and drama in the 1980s.
Performed live on the street by two superb physical theater experts, Raymond Keane (director of Ireland’s celebrated Barabbas Theatre Company) and Bryan Burroughs (winner of the Best Supporting Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Awards in 2009) it’s always a particular treat to watch Irish actors perform Beckett’s masterworks in his native idiom (or in this case, in his interior idiom).
Samuel Beckett once said of James Joyce that he had gone as far as it was possible to go with literature.
“I realized,” Beckett said, “that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, being in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”
Stripping things down to their essence, in order to clearly see what was in front of you, freed as much as possible from imprisoning abstractions like faith, belief, yearning and even despair would be his life’s work.
Since the 1980s Irish director Scaife has lived in the world of Beckett’s work like a nun in her faith. From Dublin, Scaife is both a director and performer, and her current production of the play debuted at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2010, before moving on to delight audiences at two major London festivals in 2011.
Scaife’s expertise in movement choreography, coupled with intimate decades long engagement and experience with the subject matter, lends powerful resonances of homelessness and drug addiction to this sensitively directed and very moving production.
“When I was about 24 I came to New York to study movement and I stayed for about five years. In the early 1980s there were so many homeless people living on the street here in the city,” she says.
“There were cardboard cities in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. I became fascinated with this play and I saw how closely it related to an experience that was universal.”
Beckett’s two characters in the play are awakened by long poles and slowly begin their day.
“Once you break the frozen reverence that academics have placed over his work, you begin to realize how incredibly deep it is. In Act Without Words II we have gone by his directions right down to the way he wanted the lighting,” Scaife says.
“Yet every time I direct this is a new place it’s a completely new play. It’s because each place has its own pulse and aesthetic. It’s also because it’s performed in a street, not in a theater.”
The show is designed by Ireland’s most sought-after designer, the Irish Times Theatre Award winner for 2011 and 2010 Aedin Cosgrove, whose work continuously travels all over the world. It’s the final part of an unforgettable all-Irish production.
“Beckett’s Irishness is only now receiving real attention by academics,” says Scaife. “It’s because the idea of universalism is finally being seen a ridiculous idea. The universal can only been seen in the specific. Beckett was writing for the body.
“I know that all theater is from the body but he was actually writing from his. He absorbed all of this stuff growing up in Ireland so of course his Irish body reflects all the things that are beyond words.
“All of those things would have been picked up from his past, the sound of his mother walking above him in the house, the grayness of the landscape, the disenfranchised paupers that were everywhere he looked, I do believe he had their bodies and voices in mind, and many of them spoke in the Irish idiom.”
For tickets visit rivertorivernyc.com/node/1039.