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Lisa Dwan goes to extremes in hypnotic Beckett one-acts

Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s “Rockaby.”
Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s “Rockaby.”John Haynes

NEW YORK — To hear Lisa Dwan tell it, performing Beckett’s “Not I” sounds akin to being strapped into a medieval torture device. Playing a disembodied mouth hovering 8 feet above the stage in an otherwise pitch-black theater, Dwan’s face is blindfolded and her head is wrapped in black tights, then placed through a hole in a wooden contraption. Her arms are wedged into metal brackets and her head is harnessed into place to ensure she remains completely still. She is unable to see or hear anything.

With a single shaft of light illuminating her red lips, the Irish-born actress launches into Beckett’s fragmented narrative about one woman’s lonely, lovelorn existence. It’s an incantatory monologue delivered at breakneck speed — a disturbing deluge of words, broken phrases, shrieks, yelps, and bursts of laughter — that takes Dwan an agonizing eight or nine minutes to get through, which for some audience members may feel like an eternity.

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“Yes, I feel like I’m being taken up to the guillotine every night,” says Dwan, in her sing-songy Irish brogue, perched on a red leather barstool at the rustic-chic Soho House in the Meatpacking District. “Judi Dench would tell you she’s never done a one-woman play because it’s too frightening. ‘Not I’ humbles me every day. I’m still not on top of it. It’s a high-wire act.”

Dwan, now in her late 30s, has toured “Not I” all around the globe with two other hypnotic Beckett one-acts, “Footfalls” and “Rockaby,” from later in the playwright’s career. The triptych, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012, has become a sensation, selling out a subsequent run in the West End and eliciting largely glowing reviews. The production, presented by ArtsEmerson, comes to the Paramount Center Mainstage Wednesday through Sunday.

The dynamic Dwan cuts a formidable figure for a woman with such a petite build. Still, the stamina required for “Not I” has been grueling. Dwan has developed a hernia. She sees a chiropractor and meditates whenever she’s performing the role. She’s pulled various muscles and damaged her neck to the point where she’s planning to “hang up the lips” permanently later this year.

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“To take yourself to those places of trauma on a nightly basis alone, it can leave you battered and bruised, and I’m always covered in bruises when I’m doing this,” Dwan says. “It’s definitely taking its toll.”

Beckett wanted “Not I,” which he wrote in 1972, performed at the speed of thought. It took Jessica Tandy 22 minutes to get through the piece when she did it in the early 1970s, and Beckett reportedly told her she’d ruined the play by not performing it fast enough. The play’s foremost interpreter, Billie Whitelaw, who trained Dwan, pared her performance to about 14 minutes, but Dwan says Whitelaw suffered breakdowns. After training her mouth and diaphragm and using circular breathing, Dwan has managed to shave it even further. While most theatergoers have been transfixed, the performance is not for the fainthearted. Dwan says one patron crawled on her hands and knees to flee the theater; another suffered a panic attack.

Indeed, it was even unsettling to Dwan when she was first sent the script for a production at London’s Battersea Arts Centre in 2005. “What I read was like a transcript of my mind on a page — how thought works,” Dwan says. “It felt like a soundscape of Ireland — the nuns, the streets of Athlone [where Dwan grew up], the streets of Dublin, home, my father, my cousins, my mother, my nieces, all gathered together as a soundscape. Then it just felt driven along by an insistent rhythm. It presses you forward that way.”

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As Dwan was running lines a few weeks ago with her sister-in-law in London, her 4-year-old niece intently watched the rehearsal. “She was spellbound. Then her mum said to her, ‘Now what do you think that’s about?’ And she said, ‘Everything in the world.’ She knew what she watched was real. A 4-year-old isn’t bridled by convention, so she can go with it.”

One time, when Dwan was rehearsing “Not I” by herself in London’s Battersea Park, she finished the piece, lifted her blindfold, and realized an audience of homeless men had gathered around her.

“Beckett wanted us to bypass the intellect and play on the nerves of the audience,” she says. “If my niece understands this, if inebriated park bench drunks understand this, if it’s connecting on that level, then this is highly visceral, emotional, gut-level communication. That was a really exciting discovery.”

It was director Walter Asmus, Beckett’s frequent collaborator, who suggested that Dwan perform “Not I” alongside two other late-Beckett works, “Footfalls,” originally a two-hander about a daughter locked in elliptical conversation with her ailing mother, and “Rockaby,” about a spectral old woman in a creaky rocking chair lulling herself off of this mortal coil.

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David Dower, ArtsEmerson co-artistic director, first saw Dwan perform the trilogy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014 and was riveted by its sheer ambition. “In these short and intensely personal texts, she’s seen the whole universe of human experience and she’s tackled the performance on that scale,” he says. “So it is at once piercingly personal and entirely epic. I haven’t seen someone attack it like this. It is like watching a great athlete at the top of their form at the highest degree of difficulty.”

Growing up in rural Ireland, Dwan learned early on about the art of reinvention. She left home to train as a ballet dancer in England when she was 14 (she even once danced with Rudolph Nureyev). But a few years later, she returned to Ireland and took up acting in film and television, including a starring role in the Irish fantasy epic “Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog.” But she longed to carve out a career as a serious theater actress and eventually moved to London.

“I said to myself, OK, if I’m just a TV actress, I’ll move to London and try to do the most difficult, intense theater. If I earn my stripes in that, maybe then that’ll open doors,” she recalls. “Now I’m known as this really intense Beckett actress, and people say to me, ‘But Lisa that’s impenetrable high art.’ So I’m having a struggle being seen in film and television again. It’s amazing the boxes you’re put into.”

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After the move to London, she started a media and marketing company, helping to launch the notorious “onesie” craze and convincing the likes of Harry Styles and Justin Bieber to wear them. Proceeds from Dwan’s company have given her an autonomy to produce the Beckett tours and develop other theater projects. Last week, Dwan relocated to the States. She’ll be an artist-in-residence at both New York University and Princeton, where she’ll get to create new work.

Of course, she knows that she has Beckett to thank. “He’s opened a lot of doors for me. He’s given me my life in a way, I suppose, and given me an opportunity to grow and be the type of actor I always wanted to be.”

A Samuel Beckett Trilogy

Performed by Lisa Dwan. Directed by Walter Asmus. Produced in association with ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann and presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Center Mainstage, Boston, March 16-20. Tickets: $25-$75, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org


Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.