By Patrick Hurley
Filling the emptiness that accompanies the mundaneness of everyday life is a recurring theme throughout the work of Samuel Beckett. He creates cold, isolated landscapes and then populates them with characters who are usually incapable of escaping the dreary and awful world around them. Endgame, playing now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is a classic example of Beckett at his very best.
Hamm (Alan Mandell) is an older blind man, confined to a wheelchair, to one room in his home. The capacious room has two windows, one facing east where land lies, and the other facing west to the sea. There are also two large trash can-looking barrels with lids on them in the back corner of the room.
At the top of the play Hamm is in his wheelchair covered with a sheet, when Clov (Barry McGovern) enters and goes about his daily busy work of checking the room. Clov uncovers Hamm to wake him up and start the day. After a brief dialogue between these two remarkably miserable men, Hamm’s parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Anne Gee Byrd) pop up from the large barrels where they engage in discussions with each other and with their son. The themes of isolation, and despair are prevalent in Beckett’s greatest works, and it is no different here. It is the dialogue between Nagg and Nell that really hits upon one of the overarching themes of this play, aging. The two go from reminiscing, to pontificating on their current situation, with a touch of sentimentality, particularly whenever the word yesterday is mentioned, and Nell responds with a reflective smile and says the word with a delicious longing, “yesterday.”
This production is stunning. The grandly simple set, designed by John Lacovelli, looks like some kind of medieval chamber, the steely grey walls and open space create mood and tension, and ultimately heighten the metaphorical nature of the world. The costumes, designed by Maggie Morgan, likewise added beautiful authenticity to the dreary and isolated nature of this play. It also features a stellar pair of performances, Alan Mandell as Hamm and Barry McGovern as Clov.
Mr. Mandell, who also masterfully directed this production, is so brilliant as Hamm, that all of his hindrances—his wheelchair, which hardly ever moves, and his dark sunglasses that hide his eyes—do not diminish, but rather amplify the character to the point that it becomes impossible to take your eyes off of him. He commands the stage at all times, and at an impressive eighty-eight years (He toured in original productions directed by Beckett!!) he has a youthful energy and vocal power that is as intoxicating as it is enviable.
Likewise, Barry McGovern perfectly embodies the bitterness of Clov. His facial expressions are priceless, and his gait, he walks with a stride that implies he was injured, makes every step look like an exerted, painful effort. He is perhaps the most miserable character, despite being the most useful.
Beckett is perhaps literatures most passionate pessimist. There is a quote from Yeats that is apropos, “being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” There is, however, a longing for something that resembles hope in Beckett’s work. His characters, though usually powerless to escape their terrible existence, hold out some kind of hope for the promise of what was, or what could be. And it is in the search and questioning of this possibility where Beckett’s genius for drama lies. There is an exquisite sadness in his plays, and an elegiac darkness in the poetry of his words. They are both spare and lavish, and he borrows the poetic devices of repetition and imagery to create a cyclical and lyrical sort of limbo. We are somewhere between life and death, which could very well be everyday existence itself. As if he’s implying the everyday life of the everyman is a dull set of routines that all amounts to basically nothing. And that we are left alone in our suffering to ponder if there is any real meaning at all. Uplifting right? Strangely, his plays are always filled with humor. He finds plenty to laugh at in the suffering of others, because, as Nell explains, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” Whether or not we agree, we can all understand the significant need humanity has to seek meaning. And with that as the engine of this play, even enveloped in despair, it moves along leaving us entranced in a state of pure theatrical bliss.
Samuel Beckett’s classic “Endgame”
Directed by Alan Mandell
Will continue through May 22. (Previews began on April 24.)
Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org by calling CTG Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles) or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performances.
The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232.