Scena Theatre
Lee Ordeman in Act Without Words II at Scena Theatre; Credit: Jae Yi Photography

Scena Theatre has long had a relationship with the work of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The writer’s minimalism has influenced artistic director Robert McNamara‘s preference for simple settings that focus attention on language and the talents of his acting ensemble. This influence is especially felt in McNamara’s current production of an anthology of Beckett shorts, two of which are without spoken dialogue.

In Act Without Words I, a man (Kim Curtis) slams into one unadorned wall of the DC Arts Center’s black box theater, then the other. His solitude is periodically interrupted by a whistle resembling a bird call (from sound design by Denise Rose), whose origin he cannot find. 

In most productions of Act Without Words I, a series of three boxes, a tree that opens and closes like an umbrella, a large pair of scissors, and a water bottle that forever remains out of reach are all lowered into this world by a pulley system in the flies, but in the small black box of DCAC, the job is done by stagehand Ron Litman, black-clad in a balaclava, sometimes using rods. With every new object, Curtis’ face shifts from bemusement to confusion, from desperation to purpose. Does he climb a stack of boxes and gracefully extend his body in an attempt to slake his thirst or does he tumble to the ground? Curtis is a ballet dancer as well as an actor so even these failures are elegant failures. Are we to play along with the conventions of theater and pretend the stage-hand is not there (as he is not there in a conventional staging) and that the man is simply creating goals in a meaninglessly arbitrary universe or do we ascribe intentionality to the stagehand and become complicit in an updated version of Plato‘s “Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic, which itself describes a strange sort of theater of shadow puppets?

Act Without Words II is built upon a perfect comic premise: A pair with contrasting personalities share one suit between the two of them. Their bodies are balled up in sheets like oversized versions of the bindles associated with the “hobo clowns” Beckett’s generation knew from circuses and silent film comedy. The stagehand returns carrying a long rod with a cartoon hand at the end and pokes one of the bags. A (Curtis) unenthusiastically emerges, gestures a morning prayer, and puts on a suit neatly laid out on the floor, capping it off with a bowler. He finds a carrot in his jacket pocket and takes a bite before returning it. Then, having finished his daily routine, he takes off his suit, and balls himself up in his bindle. The stagehand returns, prods the other bundle, waking B (Lee Ordeman) from his slumber, he goes through a similar routine, though he finds time to exercise, the suit fits him better, and he embraces dental hygiene and carrots with greater enthusiasm and the cycle repeats.

“Acts without words” may describe the challenge Beckett gave himself as a writer, but in performance these works are defined by movement. McNamara often draws upon physically expressive actors in his ensemble: Whereas Curtis engages in balletic clowning, Ordeman, whom I have seen use his training in Japanese butoh dance to express horror, here expresses an intensity for the ordinary.

The show’s first words are uttered in the more naturalistic Rough for Theatre I. A (Litman) is a blind fiddler who makes his instrument screech as his bow rakes across the strings. He stops to bark, “a penny for a poor old man!” His only audience, B (Buck O’Leary), a loquacious man who pushes his wheelchair along with a pole like a gondolier, starts to suggest ways the two might aid one another, of course with him in charge. It’s a dark comedy of the hungry meeting the scheming, wonderfully realized with O’Leary’s mellifluous baritone, and Litman’s mime skills. Litman keeps his eyelids peeled, and his pupils unfocused creating the illusion that he senses no light s, his precise head and neck movements seem to survey the ambient sound of his surroundings. He uses small, yet heavy footsteps to maintain his balance, safely navigating unfamiliar ground. 

Litman’s mime talents are also evident in Eh Joe. The short was Beckett’s first work written for television and though it has been filmed on multiple occasions, it is rarely staged (to do so requires special arrangement with the Beckett estate). Litman, playing Joe, is wrapped in a blue bathrobe, his gray hair wild, as he mimes checking his doors and windows before latching them shut and settling in a chair. Just then, a disembodied voice (Stacy Whittle) speaks. She haunts him, speaking just above a whisper, like a lover who left long ago for someone better, or whom he drove to suicide—her story changes over the course of show. At other moments the voice taunts him as a moralist, calling out Joe for being unloved and paying for sex, as well as condemning the woman who does it for a tuppence, and as his own conscience who knows his sins. The audience, replacing the television camera, is transfixed upon Joe’s every facial expression as he silently accepts judgement whether it comes from within or beyond.

Indeed, Litman’s mastery of precise movements and sudden stillnesses is such that, during the post-show reception, once Litman reverted to his everyday body language, at least one audience member could be heard, upon being introduced, not recognizing him as the actor they had just seen from their seat in the third row. 

The reputation of Beckett’s full-length work may overshadow that of his shorts, but these miniatures served as an avenue for him to experiment with new forms and concepts. They are every bit as beautiful, funny, and haunting as his better-known plays. Scena gives us a rare opportunity to see these treasures performed in an intimate setting.  

Beckett Shorts, by Samuel Beckett and directed by Robert McNamara, runs through July 16 at District of Columbia Arts Center. $28–$35.