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Three short plays: poetic, fascinating, refreshing

When the lights faded after the first of three short avant-garde pieces, Dionne Warwick came over the loudspeaker to ask this musical question: “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Excellent question. Well, as one of Samuel Beckett’s characters says in “Footfalls,” it’s about “it all.”

“It all, it all, it all,” intones a woman.

Beyond that, I cannot help you. If you want to make sense of it all, or “it all,” you should take advantage of the nightly talk-back sessions, in which a moderator (Tony Flinn, on opening night) discusses the plays and takes questions.

Even then, don’t expect pat answers. The beauty of this night of theater is that the audience (as well as the playwrights, directors and actors) are liberated from conventional analysis. We don’t have to ask if the story is coherent, because there is no real story. We don’t have to worry about whether the characters are believable, because there are no conventional characters.

All we have to do is float along on waves of poetry and imagery, and feel what those words and images convey.

That turns out to be plenty. All three of these short plays are well-directed, thoughtfully conceived and fascinating in their own ways.

The first piece, “Far Away,” by contemporary British playwright Caryl Churchill, is the longest and meatiest of the three. It begins with a little girl, who should have been in bed, witnessing some kind of violent event. It seems clear enough that this a metaphor for a loss of innocence – Young Joan (Mary Ormsby) is finding out, as we all do, that the world can be a brutal place.

Then it segues unpredictably into a vignette of two people making hats, which seems innocent enough until this chilling line: “It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies.”

Soon, the hat wearers march off in a parade to die, followed by a paranoid confrontation which is undoubtedly related to what went before, but I’m not sure how.

I was too busy enjoying Churchill’s paranoid-absurdist dialogue, including lines like, “Mallards are not good water-birds – they’re on the side of the elephants and Koreans.”

Director Stuart McKenzie first pipes in some klezmer-sounding clarinet, which infuses us with a creepy Holocaust dread. Then he pulls that rug out from under us with some sprightly bluegrass.

Beckett’s “Rockaby” only lasts 15 minutes, but it may stay with me longest. An old woman, played by Sandy Hosking, rocks slowly in a chair, her face swinging in and out of a tiny square of light. She says only one word – “more” – four times, although a tape of her voice provides a sing-song accompaniment of seemingly disconnected phrases.

“Time she stopped, time she stopped, going to and fro,” is one repeated phrase.

It might mean: It’s about time she stopped (living). Or it might mean that, for her, time has stopped.

Discuss afterward.

Meanwhile, watch Hosking as the life slowly appears to drain from her face. Each succeeding “more” gets fainter and fainter, lesser and lesser. At the end, director Dawn Taylor-Reinhart gives us a powerful image of the empty chair, rocking alone.

The third piece, Beckett’s “Footfalls,” takes place entirely in a rectangle of light on the stage. May, played well by Kate Daniel, repeatedly paces back and forth in the rectangle, wearing what appears to be a ragged burial shroud.

She engages in dialogue with her disembodied mother, voiced by Sara Edlin-Marlowe, and then, later, with just herself. She is revolving “it all” in her head.

Director Maria Caprile evocatively turns May’s footfalls into a kind of eerie metronome, ticking off the seconds of May’s life.

All three of these pieces seem to have a common theme: death. What they say about death, and how they relate to each other … I’ll get back to you on that.

Meanwhile, I’m amazed that an evening about death can feel so refreshing and even exhilarating.

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