EgoPo, the classic theater company, continues its traversal of Samuel Beckett's stage works with Endgame, the middle and least performed of the trilogy that also includes Waiting for Godot and Happy Days. Beckett doesn't refer to these plays as a trilogy, but they're so interwoven in terms of theme and characterization that they seem variants of a single vision.
Didi and Gogo, the tramps of Godot, are reprised in Endgame's Hamm and Clov— the verbose intellectual and the restless simpleton— but the latter pair recapitulates elements of Godot's other odd couple, Lucky and Pozzo, as well. Like Pozzo, Hamm is blind, and like him, too, a brutal-seeming master. But Hamm is also paralyzed from the waist down, as the half-immured Winnie will effectively be in Happy Days, just as Winnie's second-act situation— she is buried to the neck—mirrors the condition of Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, whose heads alone are visible from the ashcans they inhabit.
Each play is set in a blasted world where notions of time and space are destabilized, if not rendered meaningless; each begins and ends in stasis. The mise-en-scène of the trilogy is thus: characters in deadlock, suspended in a void.
Savadove's very different take
Lane Savadove, the director of the production (and the company), has a very different take on Endgame. To him it is, "at its most basic, a family play." EgoPo's (unattributed) press release describes Clov as the son of Hamm, "a once-successful self-actualization guru." None of this (and some other equally fanciful back-story) has the slightest warrant in the text. Savadove has set the play in a cluttered South Jersey basement-cum-rec room in the 1970s, with Philadelphia sports banners on the wall. This, according to the same unsigned release, represents "the dark collective unconscious of all Americans."
Beckett, needless to say, was an Irish playwright who wrote Endgame in French (Fin de partie) and never conceived an American character in his life, though he did once write a text for Buster Keaton. The myriad cultural and literary references in Endgame, like Beckett's entire theatrical sensibility, are purely European.
What's more, Beckett exercised fanatical control over the precisely stipulated details of all his plays, and permitted no deviation from them during his lifetime. South Jersey would have been as far from his mind as Mars— probably farther, since he describes in all the plays of the trilogy a near-dead world in which only the faintest signs of nonhuman life exist.
Fortunately none of this matters critically, since Beckett's text carries both play and performers, and Dan Soule's elaborate set, which might have served another play quite well, is soon put out of mind. Ed Swidey's stylized Hamm is a tour de force, and both J. Center's Nagg and Ann Gundersheimer's Nell, though incongruously equipped with German accents, mug effectively if perhaps excessively. (Savadove has reimagined them as old troupers.)
Only Doug Greene's Clov seems to have succumbed somewhat to the production's conceptual confusions. As is generally true of EgoPo, the physical discipline of all the performers is striking— and, one might add, highly "European." No South Jersey slouching here.
The classic conflict between Meyerhold and Stanislavsky— tight line-readings and scrupulous attention to the text, versus the use of personal experience and back-story to create a character— is very much in evidence in this Endgame. Acting is a mysterious craft, and one can get fine work from either technique.
Ed Swidey, the cynosure of this production, is very much the Meyerholdian here, at least. His sublime bombast seems at first all on the surface, but with subtle shifts of tone and expression he reveals the underlying duel between courage and despair that lies at the heart of Hamm's character, and which can have no resolution even in the death that should, and must, but does not come. The stilled silence at the end of the play is the reward of Swidey's deeply pondered performance—a silence shattered, alas, by the Seventies-style pop sound track that rudely trumps it.
Memo to EgoPo: Lose Jersey. Let Sam speak for himself.♦
To read a response by by Julius Ferraro, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.