The three plays by Samuel Beckett, which the ever-adventurous Paradise Island Express Theatre Company is presenting at the GALA Theatre through Dec. 22, are not only brief; they have been stripped to the absolute minimum.
In "A Piece of Monologue," an old man (Christopher Hurt) stands motionless before a blank wall in an empty room, ruminating. In "Rockaby," an elderly lady in a rocking chair (Deirdre Lavrakas) rocks away the final moments of her life. "Footfalls," only by contrast, is near epic: Outside the door of her invalid mother, a daughter (Dianne Couves) paces back and forth in an oblong box of light. She, too, can't help "revolving it all" in her mind. But sometimes her unseen mother talks to her.
Weighing on all of these wasted creatures is time. Where did it go? How do you fill up what remains? "Two and one-half billion seconds," notes the old man, toting up his life. Then with a rueful chuckle, he adds, "Hard to believe so few." The immobile woman in the rocking chair has long gazed out her window for the sign of another living being. In vain. "Time she stopped," says a tape-recorded voice, which is, of course, the voice in her head.
Like a spring drying up, their experience has been reduced to a trickle of basic functions -- breathing, rocking, shuffling, staring. Their memories are faint, garbled. In an attempt to figure out life, they keep coming back to the same remnants of thought, the same few fleeting images, the same snatches of recollected emotion, as if, through repetition, they could force those fragments into a coherent design. When they talk about themselves, it is in the third person, "Birth," notes the old man, "it was the death of him."
What is astonishing about these three plays -- which can be viewed as the ultimate extension of "Krapp's Last Tape" -- is their variety of tone and mood. With each succeeding work, Beckett seems to be painting himself into an ever-smaller corner. Yet even in such restricted dimensions, he continues to find maneuvering room. The overriding despair does not preclude humor, poetry, gallantry or compassion. With nothing else left to savor, Beckett's characters continue to savor words.
Designed and directed by Kim Peter Kovac, the Paradise Island production doesn't always exploit this variety to the fullest. But the stagings are still evocative and true to Beckett's intent. Hurt -- garbed in a white nightshirt and white socks, his hair whipped into snowdrifts -- delivers the richest performance, partially because he's not afraid to draw on a basic joviality. (Far from betraying the material, the twinkle adds a layer of irony to it.) Couves struck me as too young for the pacing daughter, but there's a poignancy to her face in stillness that you will find moving. And while Lavrakas' voice is on the thin side, she has nonetheless captured the twilight essence of an old woman going to her death in the arms of "Mother Rocker."
Lacking a permament home, the Paradise Island Express is sharing quarters this season with GALA Inc. at the Lansburgh Cultural Center. In what is essentially a large room framed with arches, you might expect Beckett's plays to get lost. Instead, they are enhanced by the setting. Are they not, after all, specks of light and sound in a vast universe of darkness?