Environmental-theater designer Jerry Rojo once remarked that he regarded Samuel Beckett's Endgame as the ultimate personal theatrical experience. Convinced that the play's two main characters personified the conflicting forces of intellect and emotion, Rojo created a unique design for his production of the play: The maverick designer crafted individual cardboard "houses" that isolated each seat in the theater, allowing each audience member to experience the play in the relative privacy of a makeshift cubicle. Rojo's daring concept still stands as one of the more innovative theatrical designs of the twentieth century.
Germinal Stage Denver is currently presenting a more traditional approach to Beckett's play. Nevertheless, director Stephen R. Kramer's masterful interpretation makes for an absorbing evening of theater, mostly because Kramer and a talented cast communicate Beckett's lofty ideas to us on an achingly intuitive level. What's more, Kramer's treatment manages to entertain us even while addressing such concepts as nuclear holocaust and the futility of the human condition.
As the play begins, Clov (Michael Shalhoub), a logic-dependent urchin of a man, shuffles back and forth with dogged determination in front of a brick wall. The solitary figure mounts a ladder and peers out of a green-colored window at what's left of the human race. Methodical and hopeful, he repeats this macabre ritual at a second, blue-tinted window, then exits the stage through a dimly lit doorway. As we adjust our senses to the play's dark atmosphere, we wonder if the two illuminated windows are meant to represent a pair of larger-than-life eyes looking out on the world.
But is this strange environment supposed to be the inside of a person's head or is it a post-apocalyptic fallout shelter? Before we can formulate an answer to that question, light slowly fills the tiny stage, revealing Hamm (Ed Baierlein), an emotionally indulgent, motionless aesthete. Unable to stand, Hamm holds forth for the entire play from a chair secured to a metal frame. His bald head is adorned with a fez, sunglasses and a bloodstained handkerchief. A tie-dyed dressing gown and vinyl bedroom slippers contribute to his freakish appearance, which is made all the more grotesque by his severely sunburned complexion.
Clov and Hamm share the stage with two trash cans that have been covered by newspaper pages blaring out present-day advertisements and headlines. In addition to serving as a subtle reminder that the play occurs in a contemporary time and place, the bins are also the permanent repository for Hamm's parents, Nagg (John Seifert) and Nell (Laura Booze). Throughout the play, the decrepit pair periodically flip their lids and utter a few lines, only to be unceremoniously stuffed back into their filthy circular homes by Clov. It's just one of Beckett's timeless observations about the human predicament that hit painfully close to home.
After several moments of silence, Hamm lifts his fez and declares, "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" And with that seemingly contradictory statement, the play is off and running. As the drama unfolds, the four displaced humans discuss several existential conundrums, questioning their reason for living with such pithy remarks as "We're not beginning to mean something, are we?" Naturally, the characters eventually address the subject of the existence of a supreme being, but Hamm quickly dismisses that idea with a resounding "The bastard doesn't exist. Not yet." Later in the play, when Hamm realizes that his own death may be at hand, he calls out, "Father! Father!" as Clov stretches his arms on an imaginary cross in a chilling moment echoing the crucifixion and last words of Christ.
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Because Beckett is largely regarded as the father of absurdist drama (a claim that can easily be refuted by examining passages from such Shakespearean tragedies as Hamlet and King Lear), most productions of his plays are marked by affected and mannered portrayals presumably meant to elicit the oddities that punctuate his dialogue. But Beckett's work is best communicated by actors who remain absolutely true to the situations the playwright creates. After all, Beckett isn't saying that life is absurd because we attempt to make it so; life's absurd, he says, because our best efforts to find truth and meaning in it are miserably hopeless.
Thankfully, Kramer elicits a series of thoroughly believable portrayals from his cast. Though Hamm is typically portrayed as a sputtering, roaring old man reminiscent of Shakespeare's King Lear, Baierlein renders the character as a sedentary, philosophic whiner. Coupled with Shalhoub's eternally befuddled Clov, the two become a tragic version of Laurel and Hardy who eventually resign themselves to the futility of their earthly existence. Seifert is the definitive Nagg--glowing with joy one moment at the prospect of being permitted to tell a mildly amusing joke, and exuding a sublimely crestfallen spirit an instant later, when he's told he'll have to eat an irradiated biscuit instead of his usual meal of "pap."
Kramer and his cast ultimately triumph because we're permitted to interpret for ourselves Beckett's absurdist take on life. Which is, as an iconoclastic stage designer once suggested, the point of the whole matter.
Endgame, through March 8 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.