nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 19, 2005
In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound draws a distinction between (and stresses the equal importance of) two kinds of books: “wheelbarrows” (books that we use for work; or perhaps more accurately, books that make us work) and “beds” (books we use for entertainment, pleasure, and comfort).
Theatregoers have their own unique problems that those sit-at-home-reading-novels-types do not. It is much easier to set down your Ezra Pound and pick up your Dan Brown than it is to get up in the middle of Democracy and cab down a few blocks to Beauty and the Beast (cheaper, too). And so it is, that if any piece of theatre is too much of a bed, people will fall asleep; if any work of art is too much of a wheelbarrow, people feel they have done a lot of work for little pay(-off), or they may fall asleep at the prospect of it (uncomfortable, wheelbarrows, but some people can sleep anywhere). Artistically successful pieces of theatre must make us work for our comfort (usually, a catharsis of laughter or tears). Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is just that kind of theatre.
Beckett’s oeuvre raises low humor to high art, both lampooning and evoking the worldview that is given the intimidating term “Existentialism” (“a philosophy,” as defined by American Heritage dictionary, “that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts”). But interpreters doggedly insist on approaching his plays as entertainments that are pleasure-free with a certain amount of erudition, thus sending the audience to sleep on their landscaping equipment.
It is a relief to report that the Irish Repertory Theatre has a sense of humor. Their current production of Endgame so finds the playfulness in the pathos (and vice versa), so unleashes the energy of the characters’ idiosyncratic language that we often forget that they rarely move from the waist down. Indeed, director Charlotte Moore and her expert cast find a wellspring of physical comedy as well within such narrow limitations. Of these folks who appear to be the last living inhabitants of post-apocalyptic Earth, one (Hamm) is lame and bound to an ersatz wheelchair, and two (his ancient parents, Nag and Nell) live in trashcans, leaving one (Clov, Hamm’s companion) who cannot sit to fetch ladders, deliver biscuits, and move Hamm’s chair, as necessary.
Tony Roberts is a generous presence on stage, managing to be a mischievous but not-too-hammy Hamm. His garrulous stories are engaging because he wants so badly for them to be appreciated in their verbose entirety. Such moments are delightfully augmented by the weary reactions of Alvin Epstein’s Nag, who is listening to his son’s endless spiel only because he has been promised a gumdrop for doing so. In fact, Epstein—who played Clov in the American premiere of Endgame, some 47 years ago—is so funny that it is difficult to watch anyone else when his trashcan is ajar. Kathryn Grody is a game match for him as Nell, Nag’s companion in second infancy. And as Clov, Adam Heller nails the unique physical life of his character and lands the one-liners, but hasn’t yet the elegance that marks his fellow actors’ performances (though he is well on his way).
Beckett’s jokes are so truthful and so deftly delivered that interpreters of his plays need to reassure us (and themselves) that it is not only okay, but important to laugh. He is, in fact, intent on having us “laughing wild amid severest woe,” and the Irish Repertory Theatre achieves this countless times throughout their production. For me, this Endgame is ultimately more of a bed than a wheelbarrow; it’s good to be reminded that there are/were/will be other times and places that seem as unexplainable and hopeless as a Bush-administered America.