The Arden Theatre Company takes a swing and hits a theatrical home run with their thrilling production of Samuel Beckett’s challenging post-World War II drama Endgame—the first time in its 25-year history that the Arden has presented a Beckett play.
Conventional wisdom suggests that if you are going to introduce your audience to Beckett, you begin with Waiting for Godot. It has much higher name recognition than Endgame, and the central relationship between Didi and Gogo has a charming camaraderie about it that audiences can empathize with. There is nothing cute or charming about Endgame, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where life seems to have lost all meaning.
Magnificently directed by Ed Sobel, the Arden’s production deviates from Beckett’s stage directions and instead embraces JoAnne Akalaitis’s 1984 staging, which sets the action in a subway station. Akalaitis’ version generated considerable controversy and a sharply written note from Beckett—who was known for insisting that his plays follow his script to the letter—stating that “my play requires an empty room and two small windows.” Despite Beckett’s objections, it’s hard to argue with Sobel’s decision, especially after getting a glimpse of Kevin Depinet’s spectacular scenic design. Instead of a simple subway station, it features a collapsed roadway above the stage, from which dangles the front half of an unfortunate automobile. The dilapidated stretch serves as a makeshift roof and provides a semblance of shelter for the play’s four characters, who live in a world where sunlight has been replaced by dust and mist, captured well in lighting designer Thom Weaver’s atmosphere of utter desolation.
In the middle of this urban decay sits Hamm, played by Scott Greer in a titanic performance. Blind and confined to a wheelchair, Hamm is tended to by his Clov (the excellent James Ijames). Unlike Hamm, who is unable to walk, Clov is incapable of sitting due to the braces on his legs. Despite this handicap, Clov is remarkably agile, and he completes each task Hamm assigns him with a combination of ingenuity and dexterity. Also on the premises are Hamm’s parents—at least we think they are his parents—Nagg (Dan Kern) and Nell (Nancy Boykin). Legless, they reside in trash cans. In the play’s brightest moments, the two recall happier days of romance on the river. However, these joyful recollections are short-lived. Most of Endgame takes place in a sort of perpetual present where the characters are sentenced to a life of unending routine and despair.
Hamm attempts to bring some meaning to their existence by telling stories, but the tales are fragmented. Nevertheless, in Greer’s portrayal, the stories are told with such wonderful bravado that at times, he’s almost able to forget his predicament, and Beckett allows a hint of optimism to pervade into this miserable world. Regrettably, however, the happiness soon subsides, and Hamm is left to wonder what, if anything, lies beyond the confines of this decimated lair.
Endgame is by far the most experimental work the Arden has staged since the company debuted in 1988, and it is possible that the play will alienate some subscribers. On the other hand, by tackling Beckett, the Arden is likely to attract younger theatergoers who attend FringeArts but ignore the city’s established companies. Either way, the Arden deserves credit for taking a chance with Endgame—and for not simply testing the boundaries of theater, but seeking to redefine it.
Through March 10. $15-$48. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. ardentheatre.org