By Hailey Nuthals, Highligher Editor
The first line of text on NYU Skirball’s webpage advertising their latest production, “Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby,” is a quote from Ben Brantley’s review of the show in the New York Times. It reads “the astonishing actress Lisa Dwan doesn’t just uncover layers; she digs all the way to the void beneath them.”
The production, a one-woman show (put on by actress Lisa Dwan), certainly reaches the void. In fact, it doesn’t just get to the void – it starts right in the middle of it. The entire production, as is advertised thoroughly on the website and in the theater, takes place in complete darkness. So complete, in fact, that the first of three plays, “Not I,” is simply Dwan’s mouth rapidly spitting out her lines, almost-but-not-quite incomprehensible maddened words that build to such a frenzy that one has to admire her ability to enunciate even in the midst of such tension. All of the lights, even those along the aisles in the audience, were extinguished, and even her skin was painted black so that the theater became a wash of darkness but for the tiny spot of light that lit her lips, teeth, and tongue.
“Footfalls” introduced slightly more light – two narrow horizontal strips of light illuminating a small walkway across which Dwan, now painted white and sheathed in a ghostly white gown, paced back and forth. Lines between characters – a woman named May, May’s mother, another woman who is May but also Amy and Amy’s mother Mrs. Winter, blur as the dialogue, alternating with recorded voices, create an increasingly haunting and fragmented story (or perhaps several stories, or perhaps no stories, simply utterings). By now the audience is accustomed to the dark, and even the tiny shafts of light on stage are nearly blinding, creating a halo around Dwan, a sense of surreality.
After the final chime of an ethereal church bell, the lights dim and “Rockaby” begins. Dwan is now seen in a black lacy gown, rocking back and forth endlessly in a rocking chair. She is lit only by a stream of bright light that shines on one side of her face when she rocks forward far enough to be in its path. All the dialogue comes from a voice recording, telling the story of a woman and her mother who both withered away in the rocking chair, peering endlessly out the window hoping for a fragment of connection with the creatures on the other side. “Rockaby,” like the other two plays, makes excellently clever use of word repetition and plot recurrence to play with the lines between past and present, and to confuse what might otherwise be a straightforward narrative. The rocking feels very parallel to the pacing of “Footfalls,” and the play closes with a satisfying sense of through-lines, though the avant-garde writing still successfully disorients the rest of the thinking that an audience member might do. Dwan’s acting remains flawless throughout. She is rigid, unstoppable, undeniably inhabiting the terrifyingly abstract world of the plays.
“Samuel Beckett Trilogy: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby” played this past weekend at Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Pl.