Theater Outside the Box
Irish actress Lisa Dwan brings her globally acclaimed “Beckett Trilogy” to Santa Monica
By Bliss Bowen
No one likes being told “This is who you are,” “This is your box, stay put,” as if your own contradictory self-perceptions carry less truth.
Irish actress Lisa Dwan encountered such scolds from television casting directors blinded by their own “girl-next-door” labels. These weren’t her motivation for producing “Beckett Trilogy,” her critically acclaimed one-woman show. But the validation derived from her meticulous excavation and inhabitation of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett’s text has been delicious.
“Beckett has made me a better actor, full stop. Made me a better person, full stop,” Dwan observes over salad and a smoothie at an L.A.-area coffeehouse.
“Beckett’s characters are more like slices of the universe; they’re not simply confined to a one- or two-dimensional aspect. From womb to tomb and beyond, I’m summoning voices of the past and the present. That is just so spoiling, and as a blonde, blue-eyed woman in my mid-30s, to be given that endless expanse of gorgeous landscape is just extraordinary.
“He’s presenting an aspect of ourselves through a very tight poetic prism, if we’re brave enough to peer into the stark reality of ourselves. It’s a real kind of communion. It’s beautiful and at the same time daunting. It’s a very adult space, and it’s a great privilege to be not patronized, to be not, particularly as a woman, squeezed into a ridiculous anorexic shaving.”
Dwan had performed Beckett’s notoriously challenging “Not I” for several years when director Walter Asmus suggested they create a one-woman show that also includes “Footfalls” and “Rockaby.” She’s garnered dreamy reviews on three continents since debuting the 55-minute-long trilogy at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2014. (The New York Times’ Ben Brantley described Dwan as “an instrument of Beckett, in that way saints and martyrs are said to be instruments of God.”) She’s retiring the show after performing at The Broad next weekend and one final New York run.
“Not I” has been its provocative publicity magnet. To honor Beckett’s stage direction (“Stage in darkness but for MOUTH … faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow”), Dwan’s face is blackened but for her lips, while her head and body are harnessed to a board with a hole through which only her mouth is visible while she delivers Beckett’s unsettling, rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness monologue for nine minutes. In that immobilizing, sense-depriving posture, Dwan says she’s sustained a hernia and neck injuries, and gestures toward bruises and cuts across her body.
“Not I’ will always be a beast,” she acknowledges. “But ‘Footfalls’ — there hasn’t been a rehearsal or performance where I haven’t discovered a whole new layer.”
She pulls out her cellphone to share a photo of Beckett’s first draft, which she likens to music; with its graphs and notation, it does resemble musical composition.
A former ballet dancer, Dwan says physical discipline alone isn’t sufficient: The poses Asmus directed her to maintain enabled her to access breathing rhythms necessary to plumb the depths of Beckett’s language “without any sentimentality, histrionics or emotional gangster-ish behavior or any of that kind of falsity, to just take me on the dry, straight road to one of the harshest, toughest, loneliest routes of all: I am my own other. I am my own other living soul. I’m going to have to face this alone. …
“The text is just one tiny aspect of Beckett. It’s the visual poeticism as well as the musicality.”
She borrows a phrase from Harold Pinter while saluting Beckett’s integrity, saying, “The gorgeous thing about Beckett is there’s nothing to buy here. He’s not standing over us with his hand over his heart.”
Of course Dwan is selling or, more accurately, promoting Beckett — an irony she’s likely the first to appreciate. But like any honest actor, she also listens. Intense and direct, she draws thoughtful parallels between Beckett’s themes and the modern paradox of isolation spurred by social media connectivity.
“Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Snapchat, Twitter … [It’s] a window. A window looking for another and another window. Just look at the endless lines of ‘Rockaby.’ [Shakes head.] I mean, never was that more true. Never were there any more endless empty windows, looking for another.”
Beckett’s unsentimental poems, essays and plays (including “Waiting for Godot”) breach conventional perceptions of identity and society to offer what Dwan calls “a very guttural, visceral, human experience,” but they don’t promise light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The “great sense of defiance” she prizes isn’t light, though it does yield benefits she believes “far outweigh any of the darkness.”
But they exact an exhausting toll. The self-described “control freak” estimates she does 40 minutes of yoga before each show and meditates two to three times a day to boost concentration and energy.
Dwan, who’s staying in Venice during her Broad run, next tackles a production of Beckett’s prose pieces that will debut in London in September. Now acknowledged as one of the premier interpreters of Beckett’s hard, meaty writing, she says she chuckles to herself when reading film scripts whose female characters are merely “a reflector board for a guy’s witty line or insightful observation or psychological journey.
“It’s not the casting director’s fault. If these are our fictions and fantasies where we lay out our possible futures, if we’re harnessing our imaginative powers, and making them extremely bland and insipid, what are we trying to do? If they’re going to be that narrow in the world of our imagination, what’s that doing to our reality? …
“Beckett wants us to have this extra-ordinarily large landscape, society wants us to eat less, be less. … I’m not saying Beckett was a feminist; I don’t think he was. But he put his greatest personality and self and philosophies in his female characters.”
Lisa Dwan stages her “Beckett Trilogy” at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday and Friday (April 7 and 8), at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 9), and at 2 p.m. Sunday (April 10) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $60 to $80. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com. Follow Dwan at facebook.com/lisa.dwan.5.