A tragicomedy with teeth
What: Samuel Beckett's Endgame
Where: Livestreamed from the Sylvia Center for the Arts
WHEN: 7:30pm Fri.-Sat., Nov. 27-28
Cost: Suggested donation is $15
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
If Samuel Beckett’s Endgame had been set in 2020, the four characters shut inside their house for the duration of the one-act play would likely be part of a “quarantine bubble” designed to keep infection at bay during a global pandemic.
But iDiOM Theater didn’t tinker with the original 1950s-era script when it came time to resurrect one of the Irish playwright’s masterworks—meaning Beckett’s existential exploration of the futility of life and the repetitive nature of human beings is intact.
Last Friday, during a livestream viewing of iDiOM’s opening night of Endgame that was being filmed at Lucas Hicks Theater at the Sylvia Center for the Arts, audience members such as myself who were watching the action unfold could see that the stage had been transformed into a dystopian den of sorts. Dusky light streamed through two windows, and a couple of large dustbins and a ragged chair resembling a throne that was elevated onto a caster were among the sparse settings.
We were soon introduced to the man occupying the “throne,” Hamm (portrayed by iDiOM artistic director Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao), and his servant Clov (visiting actor Nathan Smith). Although he’s the master, Hamm is blind and paralyzed and relies upon assistance from Clov, who walks with a painful-looking limp and can’t sit down, for his continued survival. The interdependent relationship of the odd couple is established right away, but it mutates over the course of the 90-minute play as Clov—who was apparently taken in by Hamm when he was a child, but has never truly been his son—attempts to break away from the half-remembered routines and scenarios that have come to define their postapocalyptic existence.
But the duo is not entirely alone. Hamm’s parents Nell (Ann Shannon) and Nagg (Jeff Braswell) emerge from their respective cans of ash at various points to verbally spar with each other and with their son, who treats them with weary disdain and is certain the suffering he’s had to endure in his life is far worse than theirs.
Like Hamm and Clov, Nell and Nagg’s relationship is a fascinating one. Although they’re both legless and confined to their own bins, a long scene where they’re allowed to shine confirms that, despite their advanced age and their current predicament, they were once a passionate couple who still carry a spark for each other, despite being too physically distanced to embrace (sounds familiar).
Nell and Nagg’s back-and-forth dialogue focusing on whether they can still see and hear each other—negative on the former, affirmative on the latter—is a wonder to behold, as is their continued allegiance. But when Nagg laughs at their son’s psychological and physical discomfort, Nell comes to Hamm’s defense.
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that,” she replies, uttering one of the play’s most telling lines. “Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.”
In less-capable hands, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the inherent humor threaded throughout Endgame—especially during a pandemic. But director Sean Cook—a Western Washington University alum and longtime iDiOM collaborator who returned to Bellingham to helm the play—kept the set simple and utilized his able cast and the complexity of the script to bring the tragicomedy full circle.
In addition to the aforementioned bond Shannon and Braswell pull off while portraying Nell and Nagg, Smith and Hergenhahn-Zhao as Clov and Hamm provide impeccable character studies. Hamm is a volatile master who has definitely not accepted his lot in life, while Clov manages to be simultaneously sardonic and servile. The accomplished actors play off of each other like they’ve been stuck in purgatory together for eons, and it’s difficult to look away.
While it’s true that Endgame isn’t your typical holiday fare, 2020 isn’t a typical year. The fraught nature of human survival has rarely been more stark, and the play reminds us that although things are bad, they could be far worse.
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