Theatre: Endgame Endears with Exceptional Ensemble and Bizarre Humor
May 5, 2016
Endgame, the new Samuel Beckett play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is absurdly witty. Bizarre is a good description for both the humor and the situation the audience gets to see. The acting's exceptional.
Do you know anything about Theatre of the Absurd?
Most people in the opening night audience loved this play. They laughed - a lot - at the craziness of the characters and the dialogue; theatre of the absurd has its moments of comedy.
Certain plays of absurdist fiction are called "Theatre of the Absurd", a term coined by Martin Esslin for post-World War II plays focused mainly on existentialism and the meaningless of life. The "absurd" is a reaction to a world with no meaning, or to a person controlled by unknown forces. Comedy, similar to vaudeville, can be mixed with tragic situations; plots are usually removed from reality or a parody. The characters often are forced to repeat meaningless actions, while they remain trapped in hopeless circumstances.
Sounds like a ball of fun, right? Yet there was a feeling of merriment and mirth; the audience kept laughing at the wordplay and the silliness. Like abstract art, it's an acquired taste; most people don't get it, but a few say, "Ah, that's how it is."
If you like the theatre of the absurd, this one's for you.
The acting is amazing, especially if you consider the impressive age of the actors: one is 90; one is 89; one's 88.
Four characters exist in a single room, waiting for their final destination. They wound up here following some sort of apocalypse, without a clue of what happens next. Hamm, in the central role, sits in a wheelchair and cannot stand; Clov, his servant, can't sit. Hamm's mother and father are also in the room; they live in adjacent covered trash bins. All the actors are terrific; it's hard to say who stole the show since they're all masters.
Endgame's title comes from the final part of a chess game, when there are few pieces left. Our characters imagine the end is close, and spend their time playing with fears and illusions of change. The play deals with the subject of despair, and the will to survive in an incomprehensible world.
Each person tries to find meaning in this bleak situation. Hamm toys with Clov in rituals they've constructed themselves. Hamm asks: "Why do you stay with me? Clov: "Why do you keep me?" Hamm: "There's no one else." Clove: "There's nowhere else."
Hamm is hateful; he asks Clov to "bottle" his parents by screwing down the lids on the garbage cans they live in. He takes amusement in ordering Clov to run all over, despite Clov's obvious pain and physical limits. Hamm behaves so badly you can't like him. Hamm's only small touch of humanity is for a dog Clov made for him; in the end Hamm tosses it, his only potential for experiencing human emotions.
Clov gets a servant's revenge as he plays to Hamm like a Greek chorus. Unlike Sancho Panza playing to Don Quixote, Clov does not adore his master, and lets us know it by dryly mocking Hamm. We get plenty of sight gags as Clov appears to humor his master while ignoring his demands. Hamm: "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" Clov: "No doubt."
Nell, Hamm's mother, lives in her garbage can of reverie as she dreams of the past. She's the only one who escapes, the first to exit, via her memories.
The staging's excellent, as Hamm's father, Nagg, first appears with only his hands; Nagg just endures his son while beseeching Nell.
Nell, played by 90-year-old Charlotte Rae, is adorable. Awakened in her dustbin, she looks up at her almost-dead husband and asks, sultrily, "What is it my pet? Time for love?" Artful roll to her eyes, lingering in memories, it's an acting class by itself. "There's nothing funnier than unhappiness, I'll grant you that," she sings.
I asked Alan Mandell if it were fun to play Hamm. "It's one of the most challenging roles I have played. I've played Lear and Shylock, and this is certainly one of the most difficult."
I asked the actors what the play's about.
Mandell (Hamm): "It's about existence; I would never tell you what it's about."
Charlotte Rae (Nell): "My character is the only one who manages to get out of the eternal endgame, by remembering all her memories. She chooses the white light and is happy to get out; she exits in joy"
Barry McGovern (Clov): "The ending is bleak, but it's also funny."
James Green (Nagg): "It's a comedy about dying. Beckett, who won a Nobel prize, has so many wonderful observations about the comedy and tragedy in life. Beckett had his finger on the pulse of life. His words linger."
I asked James if it's fun to do this play. "Oh yes; it's hard, but fun at the same time.
"What's fun? Well, being in a trash can is fun...but it's hard doing the part."
When you go out tomorrow, consider this:
What these characters wouldn't give for a bit of sunshine. Remember these four so bleak. Maybe take a moment to be happy you live in California.
©Carole Bell 2016 Carole Bell is a writer interested in everything.
You can write to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org