Friday, May 9, 2008

Brilliant Beckett

Theater Review-Brooklyn

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Andrei Belgrader
Starring John Turturro, Max Casella, Alvin Epstein, Elaine Stritch

Performances April 25–May 18, 2008
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

John Turturro and Max Casella (photo: Richard Termine)
Has there ever been a more devastating chronicler of our simultaneously pathetic and heroic attempts to find any meaning in life than Samuel Beckett? As Andrei Belgrader’s production of Endgame demonstrates, Beckett’s bleakly beautiful work is still relevant today if only because, in an age of increasing technological advances, the alienation that he so effectively evoked remains an overwhelming force.

Belgrader doesn’t do anything as trite as introduce extraneous electronic devices to parallel today’s world -- although, throughout the performance I attended, several thoughtless audience members provided their own cell phone accompaniment. Instead, the director takes the iconic images of Endgame images and suffuses them with new life: the blind, crippled Hamm in his wheelchair; his servant Clov limpingly following his master’s orders; and Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, gamely suffering their final days in matching trash cans. These images are as powerful as ever, thanks to the director's and a quartet of perfectly-matched actors' trust in Beckett’s splendid script.

The setting is, simply, the end of the world, as Beckett drops his foursome into this vague, post-apocalyptic terrain with no explanation. (The work of set designer Anita Stewart, costumer Candice Donnelly and lighting designer Michael Chybowski is magisterial both singly and together.) Through both monstrously dark gallows humor and subtly affecting humanity, Beckett allows these people to become, by turns, as pathetic or heroic, as heinous or gentle, as ugly or beautiful, as possible: in other words, Beckett has created, even more so than in Waiting for Godot, the most persuasively moral summation of the human condition this side of Shakespeare.

In this staging, Belgrader takes Beckett at his word(s), and the result is the most satisfying Endgame I’ve seen. The director follows the script closely, making only one unwelcome intrusion, letting the alarm clock scene play out far too long, which reduces it to a mere gag. Otherwise, Belgrader firmly handles Beckett’s peculiar rhythms—the way certain phrases are emphasized (or de-emphasized), or the startling originality of Beckett’s pauses, next to which Harold Pinter’s seem merely pedantic.

Belgrader’s actors follow suit. As Nell, Elaine Stritch is heartbreaking in her single scene opposite her husband Nagg: not only does Stritch get the emphasis right in her admission that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” but she also locates the emotions bubbling underneath Beckett’s sardonic dialogue, as witness her blank slate of a face as Nagg re-tells a story for the umpteenth time. And, most happily, there is no “Elaine Stritch” in her portrayal, as she willingly succumbs to Beckett’s world.

Alvin Epstein has played Nagg often, most recently at the Irish Rep opposite Tony Roberts’ Hamm, and he knows enough to give Nagg a low-key dignity that belies his seeming idiocy, i.e., those frequent snake-like dartings of the tongue. Epstein also does wonders with Nagg’s futile attempts to chew the stale biscuit Clov has given him, making him nearly heroic as he gives this defiant “up yours” to death: he may not be long for this world, but he will not go quietly.

Max Casella’s Clov effortlessly combines graceful limping movements with split-second comic timing in his endless bantering with Hamm. Casella gives a performance I would point to in order to demonstrate that the intense physicality in Beckett’s plays is their most underappreciated feature: although such comic exertion could easily turn into mindless Keystone Kops-Three Stooges nonsense, Casella and Belgrader instead shrewdly integrate it into the characterization of Clov, ennobling his humanity through his physical and mental flaws.

Finally, there’s John Turturro, front and center is the blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm. Although frequently taking his namesake literally and hamming it up (to the audience’s delight, of course), Turturro gives Hamm a certain grandeur and by the emotionally draining climax—when Hamm takes stock of this no-win situation and resignedly accepts his fate—the actor has transformed Hamm into someone who, though finally beaten, has proudly given all he has to avoid the ultimate endgame, death.

By displaying Beckett’s fatalism and humanism side by side, and balancing them perfectly— which the best Beckett productions must do (and so few succeed at)—Belgrader and company’s Endgame is a remarkable achievement.

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