Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
 

 

ASTRIDE THE GRAVE, SOME HEARTY LAUGHTER

 

picture - EndgameTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published May 7, 2008

 

Endgame

now playing at the BAM Harvey Theater

through May 18

 

If anyone understood just exactly what the quintessential cosmic joke may be, it was probably Samuel Beckett, because nobody came closer to deciphering the plain truth that birth is merely the first step towards death and that the journey towards that particular destination is nothing more or less than a series of insurmountable struggles. Someone might have called Beckettian theater absurdist, but that was just a convenient label to describe something new, and there was no question that there was indeed something new in the way Beckett looked at the world. But what Beckett was much closer to temperamentally was good old fashioned burlesque, a world of clowns and mountebanks and music-hall comedians and ham actors, men and women who are somehow able to turn their arid lives into highly theatrical comic routines in order to survive the endless horror of their daily existence. At its core, this is the stuff of unvarnished tragedy. But whether we rush or amble towards our graves, there is one thing we can count on: with a bit of perspective, we cannot help but see that there have always been and there are going to continue to be a certain amount of pratfalls along the way. For heaven’s sake, who put that banana peel there? God? Or have we, on the path we have taken, been preceded by a smarmy crew of litterbugs?

 

Any director who understands that much is bound to achieve some interesting results when tackling Beckett. You may count Andrei Belgrader among those who have this gift. His production of Endgame may not reach the loftiest heights which other productions have dutifully attempted to scale, but its virtues are many. He is pitch perfect at locating the gallows humor and ratcheting up the commensurate laughs, and yet he doesn’t go sneaking away from the bleakness within. And he finds in the simplest exchanges a kind of rueful poignancy which makes whole sections of the play not merely more accessible than they have ever seemed before but also more profoundly moving.

 

Most directors, in their desire to explore the gravitas of the play, see in Hamm and Clov some abstraction of all relationships, somewhere between master-and-slave and extreme mutual dependency, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that one is very much connected to the other. Belgrader, totally supported by a text that talks about soliloquies and making exits, simplifies things quite handily by seeing that Hamm is a (ham) actor (what else?) and that Clov, his servant/lover/stage manager, is split in his allegiances to Hamm, as he hobbles around on what might be cloven hooves while performing the duties he hates but can’t stop himself from doing. As Clov, Max Casella, in a career-transforming turn, is a revelation, a cross between some free forest sprite and a humbled and humiliated human being who just can’t stand the shackles which enslave him, but who, at the same time, cannot walk easily away from the only love he knows. In any collective nightmare of the terrors of slavery, the image of Casella’s conflicted Clov should forever come back to haunt us. And Casella is also, at all times, hilariously funny, the epitome of a grandly comic baggy-pants clown who has donned the eternal mask of anguish. Is unhappiness funny? You bet.

 

And John Turturro’s Hamm is a wonderful creation. He gets as far inside the hambone theatrics of Hamm as he can, holding court even when the court consists of nobody but himself, always on the ready to be a little bit grander than the last time he performed the same soliloquy, tasting language with the avarice of a gourmand, enjoying, as much as he can enjoy anything, the sound of his own voice. He starts out brilliantly. His roaring grandiosity is mesmerizing.  By evening’s end, however, he has relied a bit too heavily on the single note of this interpretation. And he remains isolated from, rather than connected to, the drama that enfolds around him. The man inside the actor remains submerged. In time, with a nudge here and there, Turturro could eventually get under the skin of Hamm, but, at the moment, it is his performance that stops this production from being one of those dream productions we were hopefully anticipating.

 

picture - EndgameWhat does place it in that category, and the reason why this is one of the season’s essential revivals, is the genuinely inspired casting of Alvin Epstein and Elaine Stritch as Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s dying parents, who have settled into their lives in their own separate trashcans as one settles into life at a retirement home; they, in the purest Beckettian style imaginable, their faces pale with clown white, are the funniest and saddest and truest couple to be seen anywhere these days in any theater in our town. In less than ten minutes, the history of mankind is written on their faces, expressed in their every utterance, felt in the humanity they find in each other even as, or perhaps because, they know they are saying goodbye to each other. Nell’s memory of yesterday, as Stritch plays it, makes her eyes wander off and then come quickly back into focus. This is work of great subtlety that somehow registers to the far reaches of the theater. In tandem, these two old pros have within them the wonder of innocence and the brittleness and weariness of age. In a sense, they don’t have to do anything. But what they manage to do is sheer magic.

 

The design elements are superb: Anita Stewart’s spare but poetic set, Candice Donnelly’s elementally textured costumes, and Michael Chybowski’s lighting which evokes the mournful passing of time with such simplicity and lucidity.

 

For those of us who are dying – and who isn’t? – we have one request, one that this production of Endgame wholeheartedly honors: Bring on the banana peels! Who doesn’t want to die laughing?

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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