What would it be like to be at the end, knowing it was the end but not when? Samuel Becket gives us his answer in Endgame, a play that is hard to pull off and even harder to review. After all, in this masterpiece of absurd drama, nothing happens. Fortunately, Undermain Theatre rises to the challenge with authority and wit. Under the direction of Stan Wojewodski late of Yale and early of SMU, this Endgame will be the production by which others are judged.
The simplest description of Endgame would be that onstage is a man, Hamm, who can’t stand, attended by a servant, Clov, who can’t sit. In trashcans, there are the other two characters, Nagg and Nell, parents to man of the house. The audience member thirsty for more wherefores will be tempted and tormented by exposition contradiction. But, it’s exquisite torture as every inkling is dangled and denied. Anyone who is sure of where these characters are or who they are should be prepared for someone else to refute them from here to a master’s thesis. This coy giveth and taketh keeps us open and eager longer than any traditional play. We know only that we are inside and that there is an outside viewable from two windows. Further, as some sort of refutation of the genesis creation myth, this den divides the land and the sea. Seen as such, this play about cyclical ending presents the last inhabitants of an anti-Eden. If Genesis is in the beginning, perhaps this is in the end. We know that it comes as no surprise to the characters but we don’t know what has led creation to this desolation. Perhaps out of a need to have a clear concise cause, some recognize a nuclear catastrophe, but Beckett has refuted that. The slow dwindle resulting in only these four characters is more unsettling anyway.
A lot of performers take the vacuum of information as permission to play a sort of nothingness. Past despair, past care, the exhaustion at the end of existence is seen as the ultimate excuse to simply say the lines and stare. Not these clowns. Bruce DuBose plays Hamm as a ham—an aging vaudevillian villain who torments his servant and taunts his dying parents. Somehow he manages to charm us into laughing along. We end up pitying the petty tyrant. Though he has no choice but to stand for it, Jonathon Brooks’ Clov is no pushover. His cajoling Clov has a touch too much spine, stooped as it may be to accommodate Undermain’s low ceiling, but he makes a wonderful foil for the DuBose Hamm. The duo duel more as a crude comedy team than as master and servant. There’s is gallows humor at its extreme–the kind of comedy cancer patients share while getting their chemo. It isn’t a cure and it won’t change the situation, but as they say in the play, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Hamm has his cursed progenitors, Nag and Nell, in trashcans separated male and female as any sensitive recycler would. It’s as if Adam and Eve are pulling purgatory for their indiscretions. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for them, after all. Fred Curchack’s Nag is a powerful combination of cute and grotesque: a legless Grandpa Munster begging for food and laughs alike. He is wily and whiney and haunts us with his humor. Playing his garbage pail paramour is Laura Jorgenson as Nell who sees the end clearly and still has the patience to listen to the old stories one last time. They create an affecting relationship and the play is that much darker for it.
While some productions shy away from the obvious bits of lazzi in favor of some flavor of meaningful meandering, as if to say a laugh from the audience would defile the depth of symbolic suffering, director Stan Wojewodski, Jr. coaxes the comedy out of the play, making it a most accessible production. Breaking the norm for the garde avant, his actors aim to engage the audience and are successful. There is some drift late in the performance, owing more to audience fatigue and script density than anything else. It turns out the laughter and vaudeville interplay deceives the audience into letting down their guard and letting the desolation in. Tony-toting John Arnone adds a simple stage flanked it with backlit walls. The effect makes the space deservedly vast. Steve Woods keeps the lights appropriately subdued.
The great achievement of this production is the tone. Where some productions treat it like a dessert—miles of dry monotonous nothing— Wojewodski, Jr. shifts the tone through a year’s worth of seasons even though the plot moves nary an inch. What begins Spring-like with references to getting somewhere changes to Summer as the hope of this go-round gives way to recognition and resignation alike. Summer’s lazy doldrums, then, give way to renewed Autumnal attempts to prepare for the long wait of Winter as everything that was once green is gone. The story of the year is mirrored in a two-windowed shack and in all things that change and pass. The lesson is everything is ending and ending is everything.
Photo: Bruce DuBose as Hamm in Endgame (Ashley Randall for the Undermain Theatre)