Piecing together a fine whole

"Fragments" • Texts By Samuel Beckett • Directed By Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne • Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th St., NYC • Thru December 4, 2011

Peter Brook is very probably the world's most honored director of the plays of Samuel Beckett, the theater artist whose name is most closely linked with that of the late Irish playwright.

Brook clearly considers Beckett the most important playwright of the century in which he lived, but that doesn't mean that his feelings for the writer he loves aren't subject to subtle changes and alterations as time passes.

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Some of those adjustments are fairly evident in "Fragments," the five-part collection of brief Beckett pieces directed by Brook and playing through December 4 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

Beckett asked that the two characters residing in identical white sacks in one of the fragments, "Act Without Words II," be goaded into action by long prods which would, in the writer's instructions, "roll onto the stage on wheels," which the playwright described as "strictly horizontal."

Brook has the prod dropping down from the heavens, a kind of divine prompt to life. The Sunday Times of London objected, calling the change "too obvious," and "precisely what the author wanted to avoid."

Nevertheless, at the Baryshnikov Center, the prods descend from high above the stage, which is what Brook, not Beckett, desired.

The five plays represented in the intermissionless, hour-length production are mostly from the 1950s. In running order, the pieces are "Rough for Theatre 1," "Rockaby," "Act Without Words II," "Neither," and "Come and Go."

All five have appeared in earlier productions on New York stages. When Dublin's Gate Theatre brought a Beckett season to Lincoln Center a few years ago, the plays were represented, although the seldom produced "Neither" was then titled "Footfalls."

For his production of "Fragments," Peter Brook, with the directorial assistance of Marie-Helene Estienne, chose a trio of excellent actors, all of whom have had extensive experience with London's celebrated Theatre de Complicite.

Of the three, Marcello Magni and Jos Houben were, in 1983, original members of Complicite, while New York-born Kathryn Hunter came along a bit later.Born in Bergamo, Italy, Magni was a Complicite Co-Founder.

Samuel Beckett's work can accommodate a certain amount of gentle tampering, but considering Brooks's position as a dominant Beckettian, as well as the relative slightness of the pieces themselves, any changes at all tend to stand out and become fairly visible, as is the case with "Fragments."

"Rockaby," for example, is usually performed by a woman in a rocking chair, as it was clearly written to be done. Here, however, in a major shift, Brook has provided Hunter, an extraordinary actress making her New York debut, with an ordinary wooden chair and asked her to cope as best she could.

When actors Houben and Magni are working together, in "Rough for Theatre I" and "Act Without Words II," Vladimir and Estragon come unavoidably to mind, as do Hamm and Clov, and perhaps even Mercier and Camier.

Houben and Magni, however, have sufficient presence and power to banish such images from the minds of audiences fortunate enough to catch one of the 29 performances "Fragments" will have given before it closes on December 4 at the Jerome Robbins Theatre on the third floor of the Baryshnikov Arts Center at 450 West 37th Street.

It isn't often that New York audiences have a chance to witness Peter Brook's rethinking of the work, even minor work, of Ireland's Samuel Beckett.