Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
When All is Lost, What is All?: “Endgame” at A Noise Within
In the trio of plays being done in repertory at A Noise Within this fall, the common theme is loss. “Pericles” loses his family. The Actor in “The Guardsman” loses faith in his wife. And then there is “Endgame,” the nihilistic Samuel Beckett play in which – quite literally – all is lost. Typical of absurdism, and certainly of Beckett, the how and the what are left fairly ambiguous, and the ends don’t tie up neatly, but the discussion of nothingness is, to a great extent, the point.
I have spent much of my life entertained by absurdism. The denial of societal norms, and the innate sense of the ridiculousness of life itself – aligned as it is with the inability to wrap anything up in a neat package – has appealed to me as an intellectual challenge, and sometimes as a source of wry, at times inexplicable humor.
Scholars will tell you absurdism informs the intellectual spirit of the mid-20th century. War, Fascism, Stalinism, and all of the many social movements and scientific expansions which seemed a denial of the foundations of western culture created a sense of purposeless and doom only enhanced by the nuclear age. Those who wrote of this, saw humanity as devoid of any real meaning – completely absurd, in the most vacant sense. This shines particularly brightly in “Endgame,” which works to codify humans in the era of nothingness.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Hamm, a man left blind and incapacitated by whatever it is which has destroyed everything. In trash cans near his wheelchair -ish throne exist his mother and father. Shuffling about the room is his servant, Clov. All is decay. Nothing has a point. Hamm and Clov discuss whether to live or die with dispassion. Empathy is gone. Habit defines purpose. There is no reason to do what they do. Nothing will improve, and the idea of anything moving forward is so terrifying they dare not let a flea live to procreate. Their greatest communal fear is that they should in some way mean something.
Director Geoff Elliott has set the play in the appropriately timeless otherwhere, redolent of decay, and crafted the stage patterns with a formative patterning which enhances the theme. His Hamm (he plays the lead as well) sits on a kind of throne on casters, immobilized by weight. As such, he never really leaves center stage.
There, his steady presence and rarely changing delivery, while epitomizing the senselessness of this particular kind of end of days, becomes a drone which proves as lulling as it does profound. It is admittedly difficult to give life to a character trapped in a chair – one of Beckett’s more theatrical points. Still, this calm approach to nothingness – when voice is all one can reach out with – should not be so devoid of emotion that the listener disconnects completely, even in a Beckett play.
Jeremy Rabb’s Clov is, by contrast, fully realized in his calm despair, even while his modulations are appropriately curtailed. And he does have the advantage of movement. His way of walking thus helps codify the undercurrent of the play. Rather than moving “stiffly,” as is often done, he has a fascinating, floor-bound shuffle and a pre-ordained set of paths which speak to the treadmill of life as profoundly as any other element. Indeed, as this movement winds down, it defines the vacancy which will come.
Mitchell Edmonds gives a particular bitter humor to Nagg, Hamm’s father occasionally produced from the trash can. Likewise, Jill Hill’s comparatively brief appearance from the other can as Hamm’s mother Nell keeps to the flavor and the rhythm of the play.
But Rabb and his interaction with Elliott are the essentials. In this they are aided by Jeanine A Ringer’s dry and angular backdrop-like set, and most specifically by the carefully crafted spaces created by Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting design. Even in nothingness one must have focus, and that is what Lawrence’s subtlety achieves.
As with much of Beckett’s work, plot and character do not tell you what this play is about. As modern society debates the fall of empires and the questionable meanings of life at present, it is good to look at a play about, well, nothing. And in Beckett’s hands that nothing says much about what has been, or may be lost.
As such, the three plays in repertory at A Noise Within create a full circle of human commentary, from the legendary and seemingly gods-driven misfortunes of a classical king, through the petty distrusts of the wealthy and famous, to the end of all human purpose. Quite a ride.
What: “Endgame” When: in repertory through November 23, 8 p.m. November 8, 9, 22 and 23, 7 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7:30 p.m. November 14, and 2 p.m. November 3, 9, 17 and 23. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org