Saturday, February 28, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Endgame"

I just saw Ten Thousand Things Theater Company's production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" tonight, and it was amazing! Ten Thousand Things is a small Twin Cities theater group that puts on plays and performs them for audiences that don't get much exposure to theater. They tour each show to men's prisons, women's prisons, shelters for battered women, low-cost senior housing centers, and they get a terrific reaction from their audiences. These people are all very moved by this exposure to art. Ten Thousand Things also performs their shows for paying audiences, which is when I get to see them. Now, you might not think that Beckett would go down quite so well with a prison audience, but his plays probably make more sense to people in prison, because they're all about mindless routines to fill the endless hours of a day. I read "Endgame" in college, and although it's not my favorite play ever, it's stuck with me over the years, just because it's so vivid. Actually seeing it performed made it click on a whole new level for me.

"Endgame" is set in some post-apocalyptic time when everything is running down, as entropy has caught up with us at last. The characters are Hamm, who cannot walk, Clov, who cannot sit down, and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who live in garbage cans. Hamm and Clov are engaged in a daily battle of wits as Hamm, who is also blind, asks repeatedly if it is time for his pain pill, and Clov patiently keeps telling him no. Hamm and Clov, as so many Beckett characters do, are acting out rituals that keep continuing on, day after day, until the inevitable end. Hamm and Clov's rituals may seem silly and stupid and pointless to us, but I think the point that Beckett is making is that all of us have our rituals, and they may seem silly and stupid and pointless to someone else, but to us they may be quite important. By exaggerating the repetition of these rituals, Beckett makes them seem odd to the audience, but if you think about it, they might not seem so odd after all.

Hamm is aptly named, as he is something of a ham, a performer, filling up his hours with meaningless, repetitious stories. Hamm's very first line in the play is, "Me to play." There is something in Beckett's repetition that makes you aware of performance in everyday life. The stories that we have told so many times, certain pet phrases that we repeat, we are in a sense, putting on a show when we present ourselves to other people, we are actors in our own lives.

Ten Thousand Things is able to get fantastic actors for their plays, and "Endgame" is no exception. Barbra Berlovitz doesn't have a lot to do as Nell, but she's still fantastic. (I've seen Barbra in many, many plays over the years, and she's always riveting.) Steve Hendrickson gets to do a little more as Nagg, he tells a very funny story that Nagg has told many, many times before. When he gets to the end of the story, Nagg says, "That's the worst I've ever told it." Christiana Clark brings Clov's weary physicality to the forefront, and she shows us that even though Clov threatens to leave Hamm, and Hamm often tells Clov to go, these two characters need each other, for some reason. Terry Bellamy gives a bravura performance as Hamm, savoring every single word and command that issues from this broken-down man.

There is an emotion in seeing "Endgame" that I never got from simply reading it. It's difficult to explain, I can't tell you why I was moved by the play, but I was. It could just be the simple human need to connect, and since the world of "Endgame" seems like a vast, empty void, even having someone to tell you it's not time for your pain pill can constitute a meaningful relationship.

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