Theater review: Actors’ lively characterizations belie hopelessness
It is the playgoer’s good fortune that Samuel Beckett probably would not have approved of the production of his play, “Endgame,” that opened Friday in the College of St. Scholastica’s Little Theater.
Beckett notoriously hated actors and acting. It’s said that when he was personally involved in a production of “Endgame,” he demanded that the performers do only and precisely what he’d written for them.
But the dynamic between characters in the St. Scholastica production is what holds one’s interest for the 90 minutes of this Absurdist work, in which virtually nothing happens and much of the dialog resembles the disjointed rambling of lunatics.
Beckett’s work is among those written in reaction to the horrors of World War II, with the theme that there is no God — “The bastard, he doesn’t exist,” one character bellows — and that existence is meaningless. But in this tragedy, Beckett sees a bitter humor. Indeed, the Absurdist movement is considered a major contributor to Charles Chaplin’s “Little Clown” character, the Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton.
“There’s nothing funnier than unhappiness,” observes another character.
“Endgame” has four characters: Hamm, who is blind and confined to a makeshift wheelchair; Clov, his servant and adopted son; and Nagg and Nell, his parents, who live in garbage cans in the single room in which the entire play is set.
Hamm is beautifully played by Shane May, and Clov is equally well-portrayed by Jake Spartz. The two snipe and spar like a grouchy old married couple who’ve long since ceased to love or even feel friendly toward each other, but are too accustomed to their situation to leave, or expel.
Hamm is the dominant personality and May, who resembles actor Tommy Lee Jones in expression and manner, if not in cragginess, is the dominant presence onstage. He badgers and teases Clov, challenging him to leave or even to kill him. But he also depends on him to move him about, to bring him his painkillers, even to piece together a toy dog.
Spartz’s Clov adopts the ultimate posture of resignation, shuffling slump-shouldered about the stage, repeatedly but vainly threatening to leave, and alternating between the expression of a Renaissance painter’s saint, with eyes cast upward, and a shrug of weary resignation at little frustrations or disappointments.
As Nagg and Nell, Luc Schlosser and Cassidy Jayne also achieve a relationship so true and credible that they make Hamm’s presence onstage irrelevant while they carry on an exchange that is touching and warm despite being profoundly mundane and, at times, nonsensical.
All four actors have found real meaning and intent in their characters’ sometimes almost incoherent lines.
The vitality of the production is at odds with the “macabre intensity of mood” that New York Times reviewer found in the 1958 New York City premiere — a credit to director Merry Renn Vaughan and her cast.
Vaughan also benefited from an exceptional group of designers, from Kevin Seime (set) to Sasha Howell (costumes) to Caitie Vaughan (props) to Emily Fitzsimmons (makeup). Together, they created a grim and grimy, tattered world suggesting post-apocalypse — perfect for Beckett’s dark vision but still allowing for the humor of the piece.
Go see it
Where: The College of St. Scholastica
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Thursday through April 10 and 2 p.m. Sunday and April 13
How much: $15, but $10 for students and seniors
For information: (218) 723-7000 or spotlight.css.edu
The review: Lively, realistic relationships between characters impart a freshness to a play that celebrates hopelessness.
Paul Brissett is a Duluth writer and amateur actor who has appeared in numerous community theater productions.