Review: BECKETT.WOMEN. At HERE Arts Center

AnomalousCo's limited run of Samuel Beckett's plays for women

By: Aug. 07, 2023
Review: BECKETT.WOMEN. At HERE Arts Center
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Review: BECKETT.WOMEN. At HERE Arts Center
Ylfa Edelstein in Footfalls

When someone mentions the name Samuel Beckett, a myriad of images (and most likely emotions) come to mind. Perhaps that of two people, waiting for some mysterious person whose presence will somehow make their lives better. Or maybe that of a woman trapped in a mound of sand, her slow yet gradual decent into its depths contradicting the absurd “happiness” of her days. Even that of a woman, essentially alone in all but the memories she keeps as she drags herself back and forth, or rocks in her chair to keep the momentum of her tumultous thoughts.

Whatever rather ghastly vision of reality comes to mind, it is typically one that needs to be felt and not understood - as is the ironic case with many difficulties life has to offer. Yet Beckett’s characters do not acknowledge their feelings, or how their current states contradict all forms of understood humanity. To us, they are trapped, as if somehow programmed to repeat the same notion daily - as if this insanity is inseparable from the lives they lead. With this all in mind do audiences bear witness to Beckett’s plays, and take in the grim yet fascinating stories he has to tell. 

One such production that recently tested Beckettian waters on stage was AnomalousCo’s Beckett.Women., which briefly ran at HERE Arts Center from July 28th - 30th. AnomalousCo, a predominantly queer/woman-led, feminist, transdisciplinary performance collective, advocates the idea of theater without borders, and of making the performance space one of collaboration, not of limitations. Under the artistic direction of Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva, Diana Zhdanova and Jeremy Goren, this organization presented this collection of Beckett’s one-woman short plays with their founding vision in mind: bringing dramatic works to new heights, to be seen in a new light (or in this case, a slightly lighter shade of dark).

Directed and designed by Diana Zhdanova, this production featured performances of Footfalls, Not I and Rockaby - all within the course of a very dramatic hour. Set within the confines of a dark theater, those seated next to you shrouded in darkness and no longer in sight, the space itself becomes part of the set - almost reminiscent of a horror film, where anything can happen in the absence of hopeful light. And thus the show begins.

Watching each of these shows is an experience, and doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of entertaining - insead, they are thought provoking, ironic in the sense that there is sometimes only an inkling of an idea of what is transpiring before us. The plots are elusive, drawing on the isolation of these unfortunate souls as both a characteristic and a direction forward; having that inkling of an idea is all we have though, and it is somehow enough to sense the gravity of Beckett’s world. The realities portrayed are seemingly constant, having neither a definitive beginning nor end; what is may have always been, and we have tuned into a moment in the tedium of these characters lives - a tedium full of emotion and all that life offers, but one that won’t (maybe even can’t) change. 

Review: BECKETT.WOMEN. At HERE Arts Center
The cast of Beckett.Women.

Footfalls (written in 1975) tells of May, a woman of about forty who walks back and forth as she keeps watch over and converses with her sickly mother. Not I presents quite the challenge in not only context, but the speed at which the words are hurled from a single, red-lipped mouth - the only thing visible to the audience. The telling of a woman’s less than ideal birth is followed by four uncertain but somehow traumatic events that happened long ago, leading to a sudden onslaught of dramatic narrative. Lastly, Rockaby portrays an old woman in her rocking chair, listening to her prerecorded voice tell of the misery that was her life.

Each play is both a testament to and question of how long time can keep us captive, and how long we are able to withstand the burden of life with no other change than that of its eventual end. Each character, from the woman pacing back and forth to the one who vigorously rocks until we fear either the chair (or perhaps her soul) will eventually break, is more or less alone; they must follow in the path of those who brought them into this world, experiencing (but not necessarily feeling) the burden of life that will hardly ever seem to lift. 

In total, this collection of Beckett’s three short plays took about an hour to be performed - and within that hour did the audience get a true dose of the grim yet fascinating reality the playwright so meticulously sought to portray. These stories are dark, relying on repetition to emphasize (and even replace) feeling, showing people who might not even be considered as such - yet there they stand, or sit or walk, bringing us with them into their tainted worlds. What I’ve always loved about Beckett is that, no matter how emotionally morose his plays may get, they are not scarring because many may already understand what his characters endure. I think we all, at some point have experienced our lives from the passenger’s seat, watching it go by and wishing we could change things, but unsure how to escape the monotony, the repetition, even the depression.

Review: BECKETT.WOMEN. At HERE Arts Center
Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva in Rockaby

While we know that Beckett’s characters have lived and experienced pain, there isn’t any humanity, any feeling or choice left in their words. We wonder what, exactly, keeps them there - why they say and do the same thing over and over and maybe not even expect anything of it, but just to keep themselves sane, somewhat alive? Beckett captures humanity in such a way that serves as a wake up call to those that may already be on their way to such a fate - those who are aware every minute of every day as to where their life is headed, yet can't fathom a way out. This production truly emphasized that so well, that it was actually a bit frightening at times to watch these characters drudge up the energy to continue on. Maybe they’ve told themselves again and again that they’re going to get out of that room, that chair, that life - that they’ve experienced better and there is better still to come. Maybe not -  but neither we or they will ever know. And in that does this show both frighten and inspire, even compel us to muster up our feelings in a world that slowly seeks to strip them away.

Ylfa Edelstein, Lesya Verba and Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva made portraying their characters' bleak realities seem almost too easy; each dominated their portion of the stage and told their story as if no one was watching. Each a respected artist in her own right with too many accomplishments to name, the choice to undertake such a challenge as Beckett and rely on their vision to capture an audience’s attention is nothing less than daunting. They did a wonderful job of it though, even adding a bit of nuance to this production. For example, Verba’s monologue during Not I is recited entirely in Ukrainian. While much of the audience may not have understood her exact words (a common Beckettian theme regardless), the general gist of anguish and distress was clear in her constantly changing tones and mannerisms. While a difficult production to completely absorb and certainly not something commonly performed, it takes true talent to make it work; maybe that’s why AnomalousCo’s stepped up to the plate and brought us Beckett.Women

Kudos must also go to all those involved behind the scenes. Lesya Verba provided the Ukrainian translation of Not I, and also served as Costume Designer. Lighting Designer Milner Sommers, Technical Director/Stage Manager/Board Operator Erika Bracy, with production support by Jeremy Goren and marketing assistance by Weronika Helen Wozniak. 

AnomalousCo recently presented the world premiere of Beckett.Women., an evening of three short plays by Samuel Beckett: Footfalls, Not I and Rockaby. Designed and directed by Diana Zhdanova, the production ran from July 28th - 30th, with plans to tour. Performances were held on the Mainstage at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, at Dominick Street). You can find some more information about the show here, in addition to keep up with AnomalousCo here

Photo Credit: Jarrett Robertson


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