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Lisa Dwan performs in The Beckett Trilogy: Footfalls.

Beckett Trilogy: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Walter Asmus
Starring Lisa Dwan
At Canadian Stage in Toronto

3 1/2 stars

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Samuel Beckett wrote in images as much as in words – and the image he created for 1972's Not I is jaw-dropping: A mouth floating in space, blathering, laughing, screaming without cease.

For Irish actress Lisa Dwan's performance of Not I – part of an evening of shorts called Beckett Trilogy, now visiting Toronto's Canadian Stage after success in London and New York – nothing is spared, or perhaps everything is spared, in making this image as haunting as possible. There's a pinpoint light that lands on Dwan's mouth, but the Berkeley Street Theatre is otherwise entirely in black. Even the emergency exit signs have somehow, miraculously, been turned off.

The overall effect is disorienting and, in fact, hallucinatory. Dwan's mouth seems to fly around the theatre like a bat out of hell. If I hadn't known that the actress was strapped, immobile, into a device to keep her lips from moving out of the light, I never would have guessed it.

Not I came to Beckett, in part, on a trip to Malta as he gazed upon The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio. In that painting, a horrified old woman stands next to Salomé as the decapitation is taking place – but she is depicted covering her ears rather than her eyes.

Dwan's demonic delivery of the words in Not I lands in your own ears the way words do when you are in an extreme state, a state of terror.

Mouth – the unnamed character or entity that Dwan is playing – tells the story of a woman of about 70 who has lived a lonely, solitary life after a traumatic incident in her youth. She refuses to tell it in the first person, however, and keeps exploding to an unseen and unheard questioner, "what?… who? … no! … SHE!"

That dissociative refrain is about all that registers on an intellectual level in Dwan's breakneck performance. Her vocal cords are used in service of sound as much as meaning (snarls, grunts, screeches), and she manipulates her mouth throughout Not I as if it were some dreadful puppet. When it opens wide for a much-needed breath, the flash of lips, teeth, tip of the tongue makes you wonder if this is where the Rolling Stones got their logo from. It's a sight you are unlikely to forget, even if you cover your ears in fright.

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Rockaby (1980), the third play of a short evening, may have been inspired by paintings as well; James Knowlson, Beckett's biographer, suggests Whistler's Mother or van Gogh's La Berceuse or Rembrandt's Margaretha Trip (de Geer). A woman in a high-necked evening gown – Dwan again – rocks in and out of the light as her recorded voice speaks cryptic, hypnotic monologues that end with "time she stopped/going to and fro." At the end of each, the woman in the rocker is heard herself, shouting "More!" – until she no longer is. It's a simple short, but I found it almost unbearably moving in its depiction of the end of life.

The central image of Footfalls (1976), the second and longest of the three pieces in the Trilogy, may have come to Beckett from his own life or simply his imagination. A woman paces back and forth along a plank of light, conversing with and listening to the voice of her mother. Or is it a voice in her head?

The ambiguity is missing in Dwan's version. She plays both the voice of the mother, and the daughter on stage who is named May, or perhaps Amy. (Like the mouth in Not I, she is frightened by the first person.). This doubling is emphasized by having Dwan lip-sync to her own recorded, aged-up voice – and later imitate it. Interiority is assumed.

Footfalls is about being stuck in a thought, or a thought pattern, unable to get out. The woman in it is rolling a stone up a hill and watching it roll down again over and over, but it is a self-inflicted punishment rather than one from the gods. The issue with Dwan's performance here is that it feels similarly stuck in a rut – her emphasis on musicality and precise physicality over emotionally connected delivery takes away from this one, in my estimation.

It looks great, though. Longtime Beckett collaborator Walter Asmus's staging and James Farncombe's lighting is, again, incredibly precise. Bathed in grey light, Dwan appears, improbably, like a hologram. It's hard to follow Not I, though; perhaps impossible.

An Enemy of the People

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Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Florian Borchmeyer
Directed by Richard Rose after Thomas Ostermeier
Starring Laura Condlln

At Tarragon Theatre in Toronto

3 1/2 stars

Also on stage in Toronto: An Enemy of the People had the bad luck of reopening at Tarragon Theatre on Wednesday night, just 15 minutes after the Blue Jays beat the Texas Rangers in the winner-take-all final game of their series.

While it's definitely impossible to top Jose Bautista's seventh-inning bat flip for theatrics, Laura Condlln gave the home-run hitter a run for his money with her superb performance as Dr. Stockmann – a scientist who discovers that the water flowing into the town baths are polluted and soon finds herself up against city council, the press, the people and even members of her own family.

This time around watching Richard Rose's production of the Ibsen play, based on one from Berlin's Schaubuehne, you may think of Tony Turner, the federal scientist recently suspended by Environment Canada and currently being investigated for violating its ethics code, who reached his breaking point with the current government and wrote a protest song called Harperman.

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Instead of singing when she hits that point, Dr. Stockmann holds a town hall and launches into a wild and passionate and angry speech about the imminent collapse of capitalist culture. Has she gone crazy, or is she saner than she's ever been? Condlln's intensity – emotional and intellectual – suggests a little of each. She walks the line between breakdown and breakthrough brilliantly.

Condlln is replacing Joe Cobden as Dr. Stockmann for this remount. Other recasting is less successful: As newspaper editor Hovstad, Kyle Mac flounders. But Lyon Smith makes a roguish impression as the self-righteous Billing and David Fox is devilishly good as Stockmann's father-in-law. Rick Roberts, returning in the role of Stockmann's brother, overwhelmed his stage partners with an excessively loud and large performance for the first half of the show, but then proved again how invaluable he is to this production in the improvised section. Maybe he just took a while to come down from the Jays game.

Beckett Trilogy runs at Berkeley Street Theatre until Nov. 1 (canadianstage.com). Enemy of the People runs at Tarragon Theatre until Nov. 1 (tarragontheatre.com).

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