Dan Shanahan and Melissa Meola, lovers of the bleak and bizarre, have produced plays at the edgy Torn Space Theater with religious hysteria, the habits of Marquis de Sade and playwright Sarah Kane’s hallucinatory ramblings about death and dismemberment at their centers.
So it seems natural for the company to now attack Absurdist Theater in earnest, specifically Samuel Beckett’s fourth play, “Endgame.” When you want weird, you might as well turn to the master; and what better place than the ancient Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle?
Beckett, off course, is the patriarch of the absurd, his masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” performed somewhere in the world at any give time. The late Irish-born French citizen wrote plays of hopelessness, man’s inability to communicate and failure to recognize that individual situations can be changed, that circumstances don’t always doom. His plays can be hard to watch: Winnie, in “Happy Days,” is buried up to her neck; “Play” has characters immobilized in urns, with only their heads showing; language disappears in some stories; “Not I” features a disembodied mouth and the 30-second “Breath” consists of a baby’s first cry and a dying man’s last gasp. Alan Schneider, a Beckett director, always believed that Beckett’s words “stick to your bones.” There is little doubt about that.
“Endgame” is a case in point. Chess metaphors aside, the play has been thought to have overtones of nuclear disaster, Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, plain old terror and that old favorite, the mystery of life. Choose one. You could be right. Beckett wasn’t much help in explaining his plays. He didn’t know who Godot was and why anyone would wait. Estragon, from “Godot,” probably said it best for Beckett playgoers: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”
But fascinating. The scene in “Endgame” is a basement living space. Hamm, paralytic and blind, sits center- like the chess king, with limited ability to move- and he is waited on by Clov, old and hobbling and forgetful. Hamm can’t stand; Clov can’t sit. Hamm’s legless parents, Nagg and Nell, live in ashbins and appear when summoned. Two high windows are visible, one looking out on Earth, the other on Sea.
The four verbally spar, recalling the past, lamenting the present, waiting for the “end;” they could be the last people on earth. Maybe. Although there is much talk about leaving by Clov, he doesn’t; one gets the feeling that this scenario, the routine, the banter, the threats, the occasional comic relief, will return tomorrow. Yet, Hamm, borrowing from Shakespeare’s Prospero, screams, “Our revels are now ended.”
It’s unexplainable, really, but superbly done, directed by guest director Vincent O’Neill from the Irish Classical Theater, who is keenly aware of poetic rhythms and balance.
There is a brilliant cast, a supremely capable quartet: Carl Kowalkowski as the imperious Hamm; the mesmerizing David Oliver as pathetic Clov; the rubbery John Joy as feisty Nagg; Katie White as sweet Nell, whose line, “Nothing is as funny as unhappiness, I grant you that,” pierces the night.
Yes, “Endgame” is “distraught,” as British critic Harold Hobson once said. But, it’s strangely appealing, and it’s a wonderful theater experience mounted by Torn Space.
Samuel Beckett was notoriously opposed to productions of his plays that took liberties of any kind with his scripts. When JoAnne Akalaitis set a production of Endgame in an abandoned subway station and commissioned a brief overture from Philip Glass, Beckett objected that his play had been “musicalized.’’ He also objected to the casting of two black actors as Hamm and Nagg.
American director Alan Schneider, who staged a number of celebrated productions of Beckett plays, famously tattled on directors who made alterations. Eventually, even Schneider would concede that it is impossible to control the artistic contributions of directors and especially of actors entirely, short of forbidding productions of the plays.
Still, I tend to think that Beckett might have liked the current Torn Space theater production of Endgame at the Adam Mickiewicz Theatre on Fillmore Avenue. Directed by Vincent O’Neill with a first-rate cast, the performance respects every pause and every stage direction.
Endgame depicts four characters confined to a kind of post-nuclear bomb shelter with a window to the land and window to the sea. Clov is a servant to Hamm, who is confined to a wheelchair. Hamm’s father, Nagg, and his mother, Nell, are confined to garbage cans. All of the characters know that they are doomed, and yet they act our rituals of control and retribution, hope and despair. Hamm orders Clov about, forcing him to push his chair around the room, to report on what he sees outside and to fetch him items of comfort.
In this production, Carl Kowalkowski plays Hamm. David Oliver plays Clov. John Joy is Nagg, and Katie White is Nell.
The members of the cast have a lively rapport and bring a great deal of vitality and humor to the performance.
John Joy brings a particularly appealing physicality to his performance; his elastic facial expressions and sighs of exasperation, coupled with his marvelous comic timing, make him very memorable as Nagg.
Katie White gives an affecting performance as Nell. Of the four actors, she is the least appropriately cast—though it might be difficult to find an actress of appropriate frailty and antiquity with enough stamina to climb in and out of a garbage can all evening. Still, Ms. White compensates with her gifts as an actor and gives a very successful performance.
A character actor of impressive range and power, Carl Kowalkowski is well-known for his insouciant sense of comedy. As Hamm, he melds a gnome-like appearance to a troll-like menace as he barks orders at Clov and abuse at his father.
As Clov, David Oliver is precise and winningly beleaguered. It is a strong performance and provides the play its center.
O’Neill’s direction builds momentum and guides the play toward its provocative conclusion, and in spite of itself, reluctantly manages to allow a bit of poignancy.
Very little happens over the course of the play’s one act. The world just winds down.
The set has been designed by Michael Lodick and Cassie M. Cruber with costumes by Melissa Meola. The production is satisfying in every detail.