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Peter Brook near the End

(L to R) Yoshi Oïda, Hayley Carmichael, and Bruce Myers in Fragments, directed by Peter Brook and Marie Hélène Estienne, 2011
Two homeless men torment one another; an elderly woman moves from her window to a rocking chair, waiting for death; three old women gossip about one another; lonely people confront the pain of existence. Somehow English theater director Peter Brook made these five brief vignettes by Samuel Beckett into an evening that was not profoundly depressing, in his production of Fragments, which played at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater over the weekend. Not likely to want to miss Brook's first performances at the Kennedy Center since 1973, I was in the house on Saturday evening.

When Brook turned 85 last year, he stepped down from the leadership of his ground-breaking troupe in Paris, based at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Within a short time of Brook's retirement, the French government made substantial cuts to the theater's government subventions, slashing public subsidy by almost half. Brook embarked on this American tour last month, with performances in a few cities of The Grand Inquisitor (a staged reading of the chapter of that title in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov) and Fragments, a collection of short pieces by Samuel Beckett. Brook presented only the second half of the double-bill here in Washington -- the work had its 2007 premiere in England and its American premiere in Chicago in 2008. One might regret The Grand Inquisitor, but there were reports of trouble with it in Boston; I would have actually rather seen Brook's farewell production, an adaptation of The Magic Flute that he recently took to London.

Other Articles:

Sophie Gilbert, “Fragments” at the Kennedy Center (Washingtonian, April 15)

Barbara Mackay, Kennedy Center offers gems by Beckett (Washington Examiner, April 14)

Charles McNulty, An Evening of Peter Brook at the Broad Stage (Los Angeles Times, April 8)

Lavanya Ramanathan, Peter Brook's Fragments (interview) (Washington Post, April 7)

Laura Collins-Hughes, Actor’s memory lapses blamed on exhaustion, jet lag (Boston Globe, March 31)

---, Peter Brook on the right to be bored (Boston Globe, March 24)

Susan Saccoccia, Beckett's humor, darkness shines through in 'Fragments' (Bay State Banner, March 30)

Don Aucoin, Moving moments of Beckett at Paramount (Boston Globe, March 25)
Brook has worked on Beckett's plays many times over the course of his career, and in his Director's Note about the production, Brook insists that the labels so often associated with Beckett's work -- "despairing, negative, pessimistic" -- are false. Beckett "peers into the filthy abyss of existence," he adds, but "his humor saves him and us from falling in." Brook's choice of these fragments certainly goes along with this thesis, monologues and small ensemble scenes that range from whimsical to bleak, and the characters react to their predicaments with humor and sometimes brave resolution. The two men in the cast, Yoshi Oïda (whose English was a little difficult to understand) and Bruce Myers (who did seem to stumble with his lines here and there), open the evening as a blind homeless man and a one-legged man in a wheelchair in Rough for Theater I. Despite their misery they reach out to one another and needle one another's weaknesses: at one point one asks the other if when he is sad he thinks about ending it all. "Not sad enough," is the defiant response.

In the other duo scene, Act without Words II, the same pair mime a Chaplinesque silent scene about the pointlessness of life. Two sad sacks go to sleep (in tent-like sacks), are awakened by a pointed stick that falls from above, get dressed, and start the cycle all over again. One does so complaining about everything but careful to pray to a force above, while the other is uncomplaining and blissfully unaware. Both suffer the same misfortunes, and the message seems to be that faith is inconsequential until the end, when the man who has prayed has a moment of blissful communion with something beyond himself.

Hayley Carmichael was a little cool and uninvolved, perhaps intentionally clinical, in the two monologues: Rockaby, about the old woman readying herself for death, and the very brief poem Neither, where the question of something beyond this life is again uncomfortably confronted. Both here and in Act without Words II, the glowing light designed by Philippe Vialatte. The closing Come and Go, featuring all three actors as a trio of old women sitting on a bench, is a lighthearted look at petty venality, and the trio all seemed most at ease here, the men playing in drag with just enough camp. A success made all the more unusual in that the production did not sell out, nor did it get reviewed in the Washington Post.

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