Splinter Group Studio

Done badly, something like Splinter Group’s third annual “Buckets o’ Beckett,” seven short pieces by the world’s most philosophical playwright, could easily become “Buckets o’ Boredom.” The most difficult thing about Beckett’s works is that they’re so amazingly abstract it’s hard to find the characters inside all those words. Yet what makes him one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century is that once you find them the characters are achingly real. Their situations could never be construed as realistic or ordinary, but they strike an emotional chord.

Nowhere on the program is this more pronounced than in Not I, directed by Matt O’Brien and starring Karen Gundersen. Gundersen, rivaling Billie Whitelaw in the film version, gives one of the most lucid performances of this play I’ve ever seen, bringing out all the isolation and despair of her lonely character. Silent all her life, the character dies while out walking. But her mind keeps living, and her mouth starts talking. And keeps talking on, and on, and on.

Not I can kill an actress. The stage directions require that only the woman’s lips be seen–a mouth floating in a void. This means the actress must stand behind a screen, perfectly immobile, for seven minutes. A light shines on her mouth, through which a torrent of words passes.

Beckett stripped his drama of all irrelevancies, but he also provided no room for error. That’s why the opening piece on the program, Breath, doesn’t work very well. There are four elements in this play: a trash heap, the sound of a baby crying, the sound of one inhalation and exhalation, and a light that rises on the inhale and lowers on the exhale. The end. If the breath doesn’t sound tired and the trash heap doesn’t look tired, the piece doesn’t work. In this version, directed by O’Brien, the trash seems too neatly arranged. With some other playwright that wouldn’t make a difference. But with Beckett, mess one thing up and the whole gig is ruined.

Fortunately Splinter Group has assembled performers skilled enough to do more things right than wrong. Act Without Words #1, a wryly comical examination of desperation, comes off much better, thanks to Mark Mysliwiec’s (for the most part) solid physical technique playing one of Beckett’s many nameless bums. He can’t get anything he needs out of life–not water, not shelter, not even death. He tries and fails. Tries again. Fails. Tries again. Mysliwiec’s timing was occasionally off, though this should improve with time. Under Marc Rosenbush’s direction, the play has a circus feel, amplified by the lolloping Django Reinhardt music in the background. Adding music to Beckett’s sparse staging is a risk, but here it brings out a lighthearted pathos.

Beckett wrote so many great short plays you have to wonder why Splinter Group chose to adapt two of his novels, Molloy and The Unnamable. The problem with these adaptations by Gundersen and Greg Allen is that the two books are first and third in a trilogy. Moreover, Gundersen and Allen used only snippets of the books that can’t stand on their own. Not that O’Brien’s performance in Molloy isn’t compelling. He certainly captures the painful beauty of sucking stones, one of the last pleasures in Molloy’s life.

Beckett also repeats himself. The ideas in The Unnamable are similar to those in Not I. However, Not I was written for the stage and The Unnamable was written for the page, and that’s the way they should remain. Bill Green’s hysterical performance is also disappointing.

Physical control and timing are key in bringing out all the humor, drama, and philosophy in Beckett’s work. The final plays on the program, Catastrophe and . . . But the Clouds . . . , are strong efforts, but some of the actors haven’t honed their skills enough to make each action resonate.