Leave it to the director Peter Brook, who some 40 years ago penned an influential treatise called “The Empty Space,” to strip down the short works of Samuel Beckett, the acknowledged expert at stripping down the human experience into theatrical form. “Fragments” — Brook’s collection of five Beckett pieces, three exquisitely expressive performers and one notably void rectangular playing space — makes only this single U.S. stop in Chicago on a brief world tour, but leaves a potent and pleasurable impression, both accessible to Beckett newcomers and provocative to aficionados.
Above all, Brook knows the difference in Beckett between the spare and the bleak. The helmer employs no music, keeps the lighting simple, and takes focus away from oft-emphasized set elements (there’s not even a rocking chair for “Rockaby”). Focus instead stays on the performers, who deliver portrayals so relaxed and fully present that it’s possible to imagine being engaged just watching them sit and stare.
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Brook and his actors clearly possess a special affinity for the playful, comic qualities of Beckett’s work. Marcello Magni and Jos Houben perform the tramp-like “poor wretches” of “Rough for Theater I” with all the right self-involvement and relish for the language — Houben, for example, nimbly makes a laugh line of “Do you like potatoes, Billy?”
But they’re even better in the impeccable realized “Act Without Words II,” investing the unspeaking characters with crisp clarity. In this piece, Magni and Houben take turns emerging from sacks to perform their daily routines. But Magni’s figure responds with constant disappointment, while Houben’s character finds deep pleasure. Magni turns Beckett’s stage direction — “He broods” — into a humorous, existential exasperation, both clownish and real. On the other hand, when Houben bites off a piece of carrot — the same one Magni spits out in disgust — his appreciation of it brims with joie-de-vivre, a moment the actor captures with just the right spark of spontaneity.
Brook takes greater license with “Rockaby.” He uses a standard chair rather than a rocker, and does away with the voiceover called for in the text. Instead, Kathryn Hunter speaks the words — among Beckett’s most beautiful — and rocks herself. The choice retains the work’s haunting elegance while placing primacy on the present-ness of the performance. And Hunter, recognizable from her small part as Mrs. Figg in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” is just fascinating to watch and listen to.
“Neither,” a text Beckett wrote to be turned into an opera, is performed here by Hunter as she walks back and forth, her choice depicted with two beams of light that come on when she faces them. Another beautiful text, the piece as presented feels looser than the others, more an opportunity to reflect on Beckett’s themes than a theatrical experience in its own right.
The opposite can be said for “Come and Go,” which ends the evening. It’s written for three women but played here with Houben and Magni in drag, a stylization that helps take what’s not typically a very funny piece and make it especially witty.
An exercise in geometry, with the characters re-positioning themselves on a bench as they carefully share and shield gossip about the others, “Come and Go” comes off superbly here, leaving one with that unique — call it Beckettian — feeling that this little piece of theater, just a few minutes long, contains simple yet infinite truths that can never go out of date.