Endgame means the conclusion of events in their natural course. For playwright Samuel Beckett the word took on somewhat larger proportions for the word came as close as anything could to the original French title "Fin de Partie." He claimed that the nuances in the French could never be accurately or completely translated, but in this new production at the Berkshire Theatre Festivalís second stage, the Unicorn Theatre, nuance is almost everything.
Not that there is much here that is subtle. The characters are blatant, loud, and over-the-top, but there is nuance vested in their statements and their confusions. Subtleties sneak up on you, thatís what they do, and this production really needs more than one viewing to grasp all that the actors and director have ladled into it.
Beckett also believed and stated that any production done without complete adherence to his stage directions - which include set and costume descriptions, movement and gestures - was not being true to his intentions. He and his agents have sued major producers who dared to stray from the written word. Eric Hillís production takes a middle ground between Beckett and the interpretive sensibility that an artist brings to a project. I donít think Beckett would sue anyone over this production, however he might not be pleased with emotional outcome achieved here.
Even this tightly written piece, which hardens the hearts of its observers, manages an almost tear now and then. It trembles on the eyelid, then disappears back to where it came from leaving only a hint of saline falling from an eyelash. Hill plays with that, tugging at the emotional centers of his two principal characters as though trying to produce that single tear.
This is the first time I have been struck with the concept of the Trinity and itís chief representative - Jesus - in his struggle for final domination over the Devil. It hadnít occurred to me the last, and only other, time I saw a production of this play. (I confess to only having read it once, a long time past.) As Theatre of the Absurd goes, that sudden interpretation is as vastly accurate as any other might be in this case. Beckettís plays in the 1950s and early 1960s helped to establish that particular school of thought, creative writing and production. What was absurd then, when I was truly young, strikes me as less absurd and more specific now that Iím as old as I am.
The results of all this time and tribulation is a new understanding of the Beckett play. Mark Corkins plays Hamm, an aging, blind, wheel-chair bound and aristocratic neurotic who dominates the room that houses him in a world that is seemingly coming to an end outside this room. His servant, Clov, as played by David Chandler, is a twisted, crippled, mumbling, martyr of a man who uses his masterís blindness as a screen for some pretty vulgar business.
Hammís parents, who share this room with their son are Nell and Nagg, played by Tanya Dougherty and Randy Harrison. Pale as ghosts and crazy as loons, they inhabit two garbage pails, or rubbish bins, secured into the floor of the room. In the course of the ninety minute, one-act play Nell dies and perhaps Nagg does also. Clearly Hamm will die through neglect and ignorance of his own situation and Clov will have the final word, the final control over the remaining environment.
If people thought God was dead after seeing Beckettís earlier absurdist masterpiece "Waiting for Godot," they must have left this play knowing it to be true. One by one, the threesome, the family, the trinity pass out of existence and only the Devil is left holding the bag, literally.
Chandler is brilliant as the quirky manservant. His physical disabilities and his verbal abuse of everything strike directly into the heart and mind. As he slams this and bangs that, he is the explosive framework for the endgame plays of his employer and the family. Chandlerís deep-set eyes and hollow cheeks give him the look of one deprived of all the necessities and he uses his fine and expressive face to say more than the lines he spouts. It is a wonderful performance.
Corkins is the direct opposite as Hamm. He seems tirelessly the bully. He is a perfect barker of orders. He holds back the humanity in his character until very close to the end of the play when his tortured cry for his father goes unheard, or at least not responded to in any acceptable way. Stuck in his wheelchair he has very little body to use to create and motivate character, so it is the voice and the arms that give him opportunities to change what can be changed which is very little. He is compelling to watch.
If Tanya Doughertyís character was called Nagg that would make some sense. She is playing a squalid and deprived woman and she plays it with a nagging intensity that is just about right for the character. Her partner in the floor-encroaching bins is played by Randy Harrison who by now is no stranger to Beckett - he played Lucky on this stage in Beckettís "...Godot." Here he plays the pathos of Nagg, the dedication to the memory of Hammís childhood, the defensive and deprived, older, nursing home parent with deliberate style and a delivery that couldnít be more right for the Beckett script.
Eric Hillís stylized production gives each actor an opportunity to outshine each other actor on this stage. The game here is not chess where the term refers to the final moves, but rather to the end of time, just as Beckett has written it. That visual imagery of the Trinity becomes inescapable as one by one they drift off into oblivion. Hill has done a fine job of bringing his actors into the mental space where this can work.
Gary M. Englishís dark and dingy set works well but adds little to the piece. Charles Schoonmakerís costumes are deliciously bizarre and Dan Kotlowitz lights the show with appropriate coolness.
Endgame is absurdist but not absurd, heavy with dim laughter and a treat of a sort, though not a sugarplum, not a by a long shot. This is a play that really needs study and concentration and multiple viewings. Even then it may not make complete sense. This production tries to change that and it goes a lot further with its talented crew than anyone should expect.
Randy Harrison and Tanya Dougherty; photo provided
David Chandler as Hamm; photo provided
Endgame plays through July 24 at the Unicorn Theatre, located on Route 7 north of Stockbridge, MA on the campus of the Berkshire Theatre Festival. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576 or go on line to www.berkshiretheatre.org.