BALTIMORE -- "Beckett: Short Works," which Center Stage is presenting in repertory through July 1, is the briefest of theatrical spectacles, made even briefer by the last-minute decision to ax one of the works from the program.
"Stirrings Still," a prose piece written by the late Samuel Beckett in 1988, was scheduled to receive its theatrical premiere here. Instead, during previews the piece was demoted to "work-in-progress" status, which means that it will be performed only occasionally throughout the run, following the reorganized bill of fare.
I can't vouch for the merits of "Stirrings Still," but at the very least it would have added a note of novelty to the evening. What remains -- the plays "Catastrophe," "Rockaby" and "Play" and an extended passage from the 1947 novel "Molloy" -- is without surprise for anyone familiar with the Beckett canon.
"Play," directed by Jackson Phippin, gets the strongest hearing. The characters -- a man, his wife and the other woman -- are trapped up to their ashen faces in funeral urns. A restless spotlight moves from one to another. As it does, each character blurts out part of the sordid little saga that linked them temporarily on earth. Like the urns, their memories are frittering away; what was once such a crucial episode in their lives no longer means anything. All that's left are shards of experience and unanswered questions.
Cara Duff-MacCormick, Mikel Sarah Lambert and Derek D. Smith play these condemned creatures with a breathless urgency. It's as if their very salvation depended on getting the desperate words spoken, off their chests. In fact, they have all eternity ahead of them to forget. When the husband admits, "We were not long together," the confession proves unexpectedly poignant.
Duff-MacCormick also appears as the solitary character in "Rockaby," an elderly lady in a rocking chair, rocking away the last minutes of her life. "More," she gasps periodically, reluctant to let go. At the same time, we hear the rush of words in her head -- how she sat at her window, scouring the building across the way for the sign of another living soul. A raised blind would have done. But nothing was to be seen. The text is slight, but haunting.
By contrast, director Cheryl Faver gives "Catastrophe" a broad, near-farcical interpretation, even though it deals metaphorically with political oppression. As if he were shaping a piece of sculpture, a smug director (Kirk Jackson) refashions a silent protagonist into an ever more obsequious pose. The fists need to be opened, the skull whitened, the shins exposed. A mousy assistant (Lambert) carries out the orders with comic industry. By the end, the protagonist is the picture of helplessness. Written for Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, who was in prison at the time, the work is both absurd and ominous. Emphasizing the former, Center Stage does away with the latter.
The "Stone Speech" from the novel "Molloy" serves to bind the three plays. A puzzled William Foeller, however, gets neither the humor nor the anguish of the piece, which details the ludicrous deliberations of a man who likes to suck stones. So much for the mortar.
Set designer Marina Draghici has draped the stage with mountainous folds of gray canvas and incorporated the funeral urns of "Play" into an impressive panel of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The decor is almost lavishly bleak. But an empty stage would probably prove just as evocative.
With no irony whatsoever, Center Stage is offering "Beckett: Short Works" under the banner of its annual "Re:Discovery" series, devoted to exhuming forgotten or little-known plays. "The Making of Americans," Al Carmines' 1972 opera based on the Gertrude Stein novel, is the alternating selection. I suppose Center Stage would argue that Beckett, one of the 20th century's most influential dramatists, has never enjoyed a popular following, hence the need for his "rediscovery."
Still, I can't help thinking that's a little like calling the Grand Canyon to our attention. You know, that pit.
Beckett: Short Works, by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Cheryl Faver and Jackson Phippin. Sets, Marina Draghici; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Clay Shirky. With Kirk Jackson, Cara Duff-MacCormick, Mikel Sarah Lambert, William Foeller, Derek D. Smith. At Center Stage, in repertory through July 1.