WELLESLEY — A mortal chill runs through “Here We Go,’’ a spare and haunting drama about the end of life. And the journey to the grave is no picnic, either, given how susceptible we are to the kind of bad faith, manipulation, and deceit that undergird “Blue Kettle.’’
All in all, it’s not a cheery vision of human existence delivered by this pair of one-act plays. But when the creator of that vision is as brilliantly persuasive and original as British dramatist Caryl Churchill, you tend to get drawn inexorably into not just her world but her worldview.
Churchill, whose “Top Girls’’ was presented by the Huntington Theatre Company in April, shares with Pinter and Beckett a genius for constructing plays full of cryptic exchanges built on fragments and silences that subtly reverberate with meaning. Like them, she distills life to the essential questions, and, like them, she offers few answers and less comfort. Unless you find the truth about our common predicament to be comforting.
Director Bryn Boice expertly envelops us in a very Churchillian mood — a kind of spell, really — in the rewardingly disconcerting double bill of “Blue Kettle’’ and “Here We Go.’’ The same five actors appear in both plays in this Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production, presented at Babson College’s Sorenson Center for the Arts. Boice draws finely calibrated performances from the entire quintet, who range from Boston theater luminaries Karen MacDonald and Maureen Keiller to Ryan Winkles (a fixture at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company) to Sarah Mass and Siobhan Carroll.
An interest in the limitations of language suffuses “Blue Kettle,’’ though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Churchill wants to explore the elasticity of language. (Like I said, this playwright is not in the answer-providing business.) Winkles plays an unemployed 40ish man named Derek who goes to great lengths to persuade several different women who long ago gave up a child for adoption (they are portrayed by MacDonald, Keiller, and Carroll) that he is their long-lost son. Derek undertakes this imposture even though, as his girlfriend Enid (Mass) points out: “You’ve got a perfectly good mother of your own.’’
So what motivates Derek? He insists to Enid that he’s after nothing more than personal gain: money or property from the wills of the women who think he is their son, or access to their connections for a job, or simply a continuation of the cozy visits to art galleries that are part of his encounters with one of the women. But Enid poses a challenging query that homes in on the matter of Derek’s identity, in the larger sense of that word: “Is it a con trick or is it a hangup? . . . Is it to have a dozen mothers?’’
While Derek eventually furnishes a self-justifying back story, he does not really seem to know why he’s perpetrating this fraud, a state of inner uncertainty skillfully communicated by Winkles. If Derek’s lack of self-awareness borders on self-delusion, so does that of his putative mothers.
Speaking of uncertainty: As “Blue Kettle’’ unfolds, the two words of its title begin to pop up in dialogue as substitutes for other words, a device whose frequency steadily increases. Eventually, the words “blue’’ and “kettle’’ start to splinter into just “bl’’ and “ket,’’ and then just “b’’ and “k.’’ With this technique — which is certain to get on some people’s nerves, just as the Altmanesque overlapping dialogue in “Top Girls’’ did at the Huntington — Churchill forces us to consider the implications of the fact that so much of our communications are open to interpretation. In delineating the psychological dividends that Derek and his “mothers’’ draw from their relationships, spuriously founded though they are, the playwright lays bare the malleability of memory, in particular the ways what we remember and what we wish for can merge and blur.
In “Here We Go,’’ all five actors portray women mourning and recollecting a recently deceased man at a post-funeral gathering. Their elliptical anecdotes and observations alternate in what amounts to an oratorio of remembrance, and then each takes a turn in the spotlight to describe her own eventual death. Next we see a man — played by Winkles, it might be the man the women were reminiscing about, or it might not — speaking to us from the Great Beyond, where he has apparently just arrived. He muses about the roads he took and failed to take while on Earth and runs through a number of classic afterlife scenarios, enunciating the universal questions about which one he will get and which one he deserves.
Finally comes a devastating scene of an extremely old or sick man being helped to get dressed and undressed by a caregiver. Director Boice boldly pushes the scene to the breaking point. As the wrenching, utterly human sequence repeats over and over again, not a word is spoken, and not a word is needed.
UNIVERSE RUSHING APART: BLUE KETTLE AND HERE WE GO
Two one-act plays by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Bryn Boice. Production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Presented by BabsonARTS. At Black Box Theater, Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley. Through Nov. 18. Tickets $40, 781-239-5880, www.commshakes.org