Sunday, March 27, 2011

Peter Brook in Boston

That is my wife in the photo, and not Peter Brook, the legendary British stage director. Together Katie and I took in two short productions this week at the Paramount Theater in Boston, both originally staged by Brook at Les Bouffes du Nord, his base of operations in Paris since 1974. An enfant terrible of the post-war British stage, Brook became associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and mounted legendary productions of King Lear with Paul Scofield and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all in white, with trapezes. As this review of a new Magic Flute shows, Brook is still active at age 86.

I have a warm place in my heart for Peter Brook. As a young actor who wanted to play Hamlet, I avidly read his book The Empty Space, still central to the canon of experimental theater. I met him on two occasions and if the dice had fallen differently I might have had an opportunity to work with his company in the early 1970s. But then there would probably have been no Katie in my life, and you yourself can judge what a loss that would have been!

Still, I have followed his productions since that time. When Brook (left) brought three productions to Café La Mama in New York City in the late 1970s, friends and I were there to watch. Especially memorable was the production of Conference of the Birds, an adaptation of the Sufi epic poem by Farid al-Din Attar. A few years later, in 1985, it was Brook’s 11-hour production of the Mahabharata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the first row of the balcony, Katie and I sat through the whole thing on a pair of incongruously placed bar stools, she heavily pregnant with our first child. That production was made into a film and I still watch the VHS tape occasionally. Here is a short clip highlighting the internationalism of Brook’s casts. Pay attention to the first actor on screen, Bruce Myers, who plays Krishna. He appeared in both Boston productions this week.

The shows at the Paramount were based on works of Samuel Becket and Fyodor Dostoevksy. “Fragments” is in fact five short pieces by Beckett totaling only one hour of running time. Like T. S. Eliot, of whom I have written previously, Samuel Beckett is generally thought of as bleakly pessimistic. Brook’s production at the Paramount gives us odd but deeply human characters whose desire, yearning, and inexhaustible reaching out somehow lift them above the rote repetition of their lives. A program note by Brook explains his view of Beckett:

Beckett was a perfectionist, but can one be a perfectionist without an intuition of perfection? Today, with the passage of time, we see how false were the labels first stuck on Beckett—despairing, negative, pessimistic. Indeed, he peers into the filthy abyss of human existence. His humor saves him and us from falling in, he rejects theories, dogmas, that offer pious consolations, yet his life was a constant, aching search for meaning.

In Act Without Words II, Myers and another long-time Brook veteran, Yoshi Oida (left), play two men who sleep inside huge white bags—until a long finger-like rod drops from the flies and pokes one into waking. Then this man emerges from his bag, goes through a ritual of waking up and dressing, tries to drag the other bag somewhere, tires of the effort, and returns to his own bag to sleep. Next, the finger pokes the other man, he emerges, goes through his routine, and so on. The comic routines are repeated. The whole ten-minute piece is pulled off with great élan, like two Charlie Chaplins time-sharing a stage, or an earth. Played by the British Myers and the Japanese Oida, the play suggests all of humanity—with Europe sleeping while Asia wakes. The effect is not of despair (ech!—I have to get out of bed and face the bloody world again!) but of human resiliency and a dogged striving for something else.

In Rockaby (left), Hayley Carmichael is haunting as a woman in a chair. Beckett’s original stage directions call for a rocking chair, but Carmichael carried on a simple straight-backed, four-legged chair which she magically transformed into a rocking chair during the final scene. Rockaby seems in every way a downer, as it quickly tracks a woman’s decisions to stop going out on the street, to stop looking for life from the window of her room, and then finally to go downstairs and sit in her mother’s rocking chair, where she will wait for death just as her mother did. Yet Carmichael invests her character with such searching eyes and yearning, twitching lips that it is impossible not to feel her deep humanity. This Beckett character is not just waiting for death. Even her turning away from the world suggested to me a searching inward.

Katie and I saw Fragments Wednesday evening and returned tonight to see Bruce Myers in The Grand Inquisitor. I was disappointed with this production at the Paramount only because I had seen Myers perform the role before, in New York City, during a three-year tour in which he was playing the role every night. Apparently, he is out of practice, so he carried a script on stage with him and frequently referred to it (left). He nevertheless pulled off what amounted to a staged reading with consummate professionalism.

You are probably familiar with the argument of The Grand Inquisitor—that the human freedom to which Christ calls us is devilishly difficult to live. That in fact, the devil invites us (in the person of institutions like the Inquisition or the State) to sacrifice our freedom for Mystery, Miracle, and Authority. Most of us do so. In the New York production, Myers had his lines memorized and worked the whole of a small stage brilliantly, while a young man (Christ) sat in a down-right corner. At the end, Christ stood and silently kissed the Inquisitor on the lips. Myers as the Inquisitor let Christ free, an action the actor could only speak of tonight. Then in New York, as in Boston, the Inquisitor delivered the powerful exit line:

The kiss burned in his heart, but he stuck to his words. 

In that single line is all of the drama of human freedom—how confronted by the event of Christ we so often retreat into well-worn dogma, ideology, words. We are offered the Word and we settle for words.

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