By: Samuel Beckett
Directed by: Frank Galati
Steppenwolf’s engaging production of Endgame finds comedy in despair.
The work of Samuel Beckett is something that has always intrigued and frustrated me at the same time, and the play Endgame is no exception. My first experience with this play was a poorly done recording which made the play seem empty, boring, and soulless. The second time I saw it was in Bulgaria (in Bulgarian), and although it was a fine performance I could not understand any of the dialogue. This third trip into the world of Endgame was the first time I truly saw the genius of this play. Director Frank Galati and this fine ensemble of actors have done what not enough people do with the work of Samuel Beckett: Find the humor and be specific.
In true Beckett form, hardly anything happens, yet there is so much going on. The entire action takes place in a blank interior where Hamm (William Petersen), a blind man unable to stand, and his servant Clov (Ian Barford), who is unable to sit, go through their daily rituals and await the end of everything. They are also pestered by Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell (Francis Guinan and Martha Lavey) who live in a pair of cylindrical containers awaiting the end of their lives. Similarly to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot these characters are all awaiting something: death, freedom, happiness, pills, food, etc… However, these characters are trapped in a condensed world rather than the expanse void of Godot, which makes the action more intimate. It is as if the characters are aware of the presence of the audience, yet they do nothing different from every other day. The audience is the voyeur, but the characters don’t mind. The other beauty of Beckett is his rhythm; everything (including pauses, rests, and movements) are written into the script. A Beckett play is like a piece of music, the notes are the same every time but each performance is different depending on the musicians (actors) and conductor (director). Mr. Galati has taken these expert musicians and created a piece of music that resonates at a level high above the average production of this play. It is music to my ears.
The cast is fantastic across the board. William Petersen has an interesting take on Hamm, as being less cruel than others I have seen. He does not bark orders with his voice, but rather with his whistle. He displays awareness that he does not have to bark orders because they will be obeyed regardless. Ian Barford’s Clov is sympathetic and brooding, following orders without question but taking advantage of Hamm’s disabilities at times. You can not help at laugh because they act like an old married couple trapped in habit. Francis Guinan and Martha Lavey are hilarious as Nagg and Nell, bringing affecting and multi-layered performances. Just like Hamm and Clov, you can not help but laugh at them, even though you feel sorry for them. When glancing at Beckett dialogue it is easy to get caught in the rhythm and ignore the fact that every line has a meaning under it. Every actor understands every line they say, which translates directly to the audience understanding and appreciating the play (even if they don’t fully understand the “plot”). I have heard many colleagues and friends call Beckett “boring,” but this production is funny, moving, thought-provoking, and above all, entertaining. It is an enjoyable evening that also gives you plenty to talk about. It is simply wonderful.
If you have had previous reservations or prejudices regarding the work of Samuel Beckett, this is your chance to see him in a new light. This is far and away the most accessible production of a Beckett play I have ever had the pleasure to experience, and one that I feel should be attended by anyone who has always wondered why Samuel Beckett is one of the greatest playwrights of all time. You may not fully understand what happens, but there’s a pretty darn good chance you’ll walk away moved. Samuel Beckett is one of the most produced playwrights in the world, but the odds of seeing a production like this are unlikely. Do yourself a favor, if you have any prejudices, throw them away and go see this production of Endgame. It may be the only chance you have to see a Samuel Beckett play performed in the way it was meant to be performed.
In Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St Chicago, IL. Tickets $20-$77. Student and rush discounts available. Call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org. Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 PM (Sunday evening performances through May 9), Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 PM, Wednesdays at 2:00 PM starting May 12. Running time is approximately 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission.