Something extraordinary happens in the utter darkness of the Paramount Center Mainstage. What begins as an unnerving image — a disembodied mouth floating above the stage, nattering on in a rapid-fire recounting of a life barely lived — dissolves into pure emotion.
Lisa Dwan’s stunning performance of three short plays by Samuel Beckett, “Not I,” “Footfalls,” and “Rockaby,” highlights Beckett’s extraordinary approach to theatricality. Stripping away all the artifice of the stage, Beckett focuses on a range of feeling, something Dwan delivers with an intensity that is never less than mesmerizing.
In “Not I,” that mouth hovers upstage, about 8 feet above the ground, according to Beckett’s very specific stage directions. At first, it seems important to squint and try to focus on the movement of the lips and teeth and tongue as Dwan unleashes a torrent of words. But then the rise and fall of her voice starts to overwhelm the words, and what we feel is the swift passage of time. The story the mouth relates is one about “she,” an effort to create a distance between the narrator and the unremarkable life story unfolding before us. She repeats the entire tale, creating an unexpected poignancy, but no matter how many times she tells it, she cannot capture more than the barest outlines of the life, so that even a scream fades without impact.
Three minutes of silent darkness provide the transition to “Footfalls,” in which a daughter keeps vigil for her dying mother. Beckett’s text reveals only the barest details, and yet the anguish on Dwan’s face communicates everything we need to know. Time, measured in the hollow footfalls of the daughter as she paces back and forth (“seven eight nine wheel”), seems to slow, even though we are well aware that it’s running out. Although we hear the reed-thin voice of the mother (Dwan’s recorded voice) responding to questions, commenting on her daughter’s footsteps, she remains out of our sight, and her infirmity remains within the confines of our vivid imagination, aided by Dwan’s expressive face.
Three more minutes of utter darkness bring us to “Rockaby,” in which Dwan, dressed in an elegant black dress, sits in a rocking chair. “More,” she cries plaintively, and the rocker begins to move. This is Beckett’s most poetic of the pieces, relying on a combination of rhythms in his repetitive language and the rocking of the chair. As we meditate with her on the solitude of life’s final days, all of life is compressed into moments of “lies” and “sighs,” the sounds of voices, of footfalls, of clocks chiming, of beginnings and endings.
Dwan’s performance is unsettling and thrilling all at once. Under the precise direction of Walter Asmus, every beat, every breath, becomes fraught with Beckett’s layered meaning, fueled by our own emotions.
“Not I,” “Footfalls,” and “Rockaby” clock in at just an hour, but after you leave the theater you may find yourself aching to repeat one or another, to catch something you are sure you missed the first time around, to keep up with the pace. And isn’t that exactly Beckett’s point about the way we approach our lives?
A BECKETT TRILOGY: NOT I, FOOTFALLS, ROCKABY
By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Walter Asmus. Presented by ArtsEmerson. Produced in association with ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann. At the Paramount Center Mainstage, through Sunday. Tickets: $10-$90, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.