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A CurtainUp Review

"The act of existing is a striving as pathetic as it is comic. "— Kierkegaard
End Game
Scott Greer as Hamm, Credit Mark Garvin.jpg
(Photo credit: Mark Garvin)
The Arden's Endgame setup is a far cry from the playwright's specific requirements, which are minimal: a bare interior with grey light, two small windows, a door, a picture, two ashbins and an armchair on casters. This production, rather than going for timeless, is tied to contemporary time in a blighted U.S. urban setting. Kevin Depinet's massive, evocative set, which could be a smashed underground parking lot or a refuge under a ruined highway access ramp, slowly precipitates an atmospheric dust.

The characters, trapped by circumstance and physical limitations, are emotionally tethered to each other by bonds that we, and maybe they, only partially understand. There's Hamm (Scott Greer), a large and domineering blind man who can't walk; Clov (James Ijames) his servant/caregiver, who can't sit; and Nagg (Dan Kern) and Nell (Nancy Boykin), his parents, who have been relegated to ashcans (in this case a chemical drum and a 55 gal drum). All await the end, the finish. Hamm complains, "Why this farce day after day?"

Beckett wrote from a place of introspection, and his take was essentially that there is nothing to express, and it's the artist's obligation to express it. The late critic and scholar Martin Esslin believed that for the audience Beckett's work is about the experience of being there and being affected, not by what is said, not by social issues, but by the quality of the experience of being that's communicated.

The expectation may be that this theatrical experience will be austere and economical, but the enormous influence of the sad, off-kilter set and the effect of the rich acting bring out more facets than Samuel Beckett would ever have approved. No doubt his ghost has already walked out on the show and in some spectral court pressed charges against the theater for trampling on the playwright's prerogative.

Although by all accounts the writer couldn't tolerate his work being reduced to a message by having meaning applied to it, this audience gets a helping hand determining meaning. Beckett-admiring director Edward Sobel makes surprisingly divergent choices, finding a pragmatic path through the absurd, elusive play, lending a whiff of William James along with the expected James Joyce.

Actors wring meaning from every syllable in most un-Beckett-like fashion. Scott Greer, brilliant in the lead role of Hamm, compels attention through the force of his mindful acting, particularly when Hamm achieves the dawning of regret. Kerns and Boykin as Hamm's parents are vividly comprehensible despite their pitiful and ridiculous situation. James Ijames, as Clov, the only one who can move about, is not quite in sync with the other actors. Operating on a plane of abstraction where style trumps substance, he seems almost inadvertently to take a more typical approach to the absurdist work.

Less ambiguous than the writer intended, the production's articulated set and Sobel's divergent reading do not ruin the evening's entertainment. But it's a different take on the play. This Endgame pops with life. Not happy life, of course, but life marked by resignation and a kind of dignity. Yet here futility is shot through with a ray of hope. You may never have thought of Endgame as a hopey-changey thing, but the hint of change hanging in the dusty air of this particular production dangles the possibility of escape in the midst of existential despair. You could say the director is taking these characters on a walk down the garden path, for no one gets a pass out of this play.

Not just any old playwright's work gets the tribute of multiple directors' versions, the way Shakespeare, Beckett, and the best playwrights of all time do. It is the work of huge artists that is continually re-imagined, re-examined, and relocated. Understandably, the playwright's ghost might be irate about the Arden production. But time moves on, and maybe it's ok if it's good theatre but not strictly speaking good Beckett. Maybe it's time to re-imagine Endgame whether Beckett would approve or not.

Endgame>by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Edward Sobel

Cast: Scott Greer, James Ijames, Dan Kern, Nancy Boykin
Set Design: Kevin Depinet
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Sound Design: Daniel Perelstein
Costume Design: Millie Hiibel
Jan 17 – Mar 10, 2013
80 minutes
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 02/16 performance at the Arden Theatre, Arcadia Stage.
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