Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Endgame replay

Remo Airaldi, Karen MacDonald, and Will Lebow in Endgame.

Was it really a generation ago that the A.R.T. and JoAnne Akalaitis screwed Samuel Beckett and Endgame? How time flies when civilization is winding down; that disastrous production feels like only yesterday. Alas, the Nobel-prize-winner didn't manage to prevent it - all he got was a disclaimer in the program - but clearly it made him decide for damn sure that nothing like it was ever going to happen again. So when the A.R.T. decided to return to the scene of its crime, Beckett's estate got everything in writing: this time, not a single beat or stage direction in the script was to be changed: a body-blow to the A.R.T.'s whole raison d'ĂȘtre. (Indeed, despite his failure to stop the Akalaitis Endgame, Beckett did manage to score one for intellect over attitude back in 1984: Brustein had made a career out of proscribing how - and even why - theatre should be done, and then arguably the greatest playwright of the twentieth century brutally smacked him down. That musta hurt.)

But how, exactly, was the A.R.T. to deal with a legal writ forcing it to produce a play exactly the same way everybody else does? Well, thinking fast - not for nothing are they at Harvard - the theatre turned this contractual obligation into its marketing concept: they would bravely soldier on in chains, honor the intentions of the author and still pull off his play! Oh my God, what a like totally awesome challenge! Nobody has ever tried that before!

Of course you knew they were only kidding. There's no way the A.R.T. was going to color within the lines.

And indeed, they've doodled a bit on Beckett's masterpiece; they really can't help themselves. No major sacrileges have been done, mind you - just petty gambits that read as tiny, secret tantrums. The idea this time around seems to have been to conjure a vaudeville playing out in an ambiguous time and space, which is fairly close to the right idea, and certainly an improvement over JoAnne's literalist post-Armaggedon setting. In this version, Hamm and Clov's cell floats in a metaphoric darkness, and it's decrepit, but somehow slightly urban, and hardly suggests the end of the world; instead, it's almost ostentatiously neutral, in a we'll-show-you-Mr.-Beckett-we're-not-going-to-do-anything kind of way (although it's actually ecru, not gray). Still, most of the deviations from the author's wishes come courtesy of the designers: neither Hamm nor Clov has "a very red face" as stipulated, the "high, small windows" are now full-size but boarded up, and the ash cans from which Nagg and Nell emerge are sunk into the floor, rendering their leglessness theatrically moot; the picture "with its face to the wall" is revealed to be of Beckett himself (genius!), and at the final moment, the set begins to slowly drift apart, which at least has some thematic resonance (although it was amusing to read Carolyn Clay wrongly identify this as "the production's only liberty;" read the play more carefully, Carolyn).

To be fair, I'm speaking from a specialist's perspective (I've directed Endgame), and almost all these deviations are well within the accepted limits of theatrical production. Still, it's amusing to see demonstrated yet again how unconsciously both the A.R.T. and its enabling critics depend on the ignorance of their "educated" audience (even when they're shouting about how they're following every detail of a script, they know they can actually fudge it). And there are similar small oddities and mannerisms in the performances as well - some of them serious - although to give the actors their due, this is a generally accurate, though superficial, rendition of the play.

And the critics were surprised to discover how funny a "straight" production of Endgame can be (although every production I've seen has been pretty funny). This is largely due to the fact that in the central roles, Will Lebow and Thomas Derrah (at left) drop hint after hint that they're engaged in some kind of meta-theatrical game (the hints are indeed there in the text), and effortlessly pull off the call-and-response timing of a seasoned comic team. The trouble, of course, is that Endgame should do more than just chase the February blues away, as Louise Kennedy would have it. There's a startling lyricism to its language, as well as great symbolic depth (there are Joycean echoes of the Greeks, and Shakespeare, and the Old and New Testaments throughout). And somehow little of this thematic density comes over at the A.R.T.; the actors conjure a sense of meta-theatricality and nail all their laughs, but Marcus Stern has directed them too superficially to suggest the Biblical power struggles and wounded psyches moving beneath the surface of the text. In the end, Endgame is primal, and there's always something terrible at stake - in a word, the end of the last human connection in the world. Yes, this is just a room, and "where" and "when" it exists is a mystery; and yet somehow, Beckett hints that Western civilization is playing itself out within its walls.

But you'd never mistake Will Lebow's arch, plummily-toned Hamm for the last, sterile gasp of the tragic hero, and you'd never imagine that Thomas Derrah's highly mannered Clov was actually a brutalized, broken-hearted slave. You'd likewise be hard pressed to guess from this production that "real" surprises keep breaking up their routine - and lead, step by step, inevitably down into the dust. But that's rather the trick, isn't it - to keep the audience wondering whether something is, indeed, "taking its course" (it is). Even the twists of the final "scenes" - the last dose of Hamm's pain-killer, and the possible appearance of a future Clov on the horizon - registered here as little more than blips in the ongoing schtick (when they're actually turning points). And at the curtain, it seemed obvious we were still stuck in a cycle of re-enactment. But are we? Or is Clov at last really leaving his master for good? Both interpretations should seem eminently possible, but this time only one - the rather more comforting one - seemed credible. Thus the moving walls didn't seem like much of a liberty - they were actually supplying what the actors weren't.

There was, to be fair, more truly Beckettian feeling in the performances of Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald, who perhaps looked too hale and hearty for Nagg and Nell, but clearly were in the right grimly gay frame of mind. Both referenced the music hall too - again, appropriately enough - but this time with more genuine feeling in their desperate, dying interactions. Somehow I think the talented Derrah and Lebow have more of this depth in them, too. Let's hope they find it before this Endgame meets its end.

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