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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: A.C.T.’s Samuel Beckett double bill—“Endgame” and “Play”— through June 3, 2012

Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, left, is Hamm and ) and A.C.T. core acting company member Nick Gabriel is his servant, Clov, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

No one pokes fun at the misery of existence with the crystalline lines of the late master playwright Samuel Beckett. The problem has always been finding actors who can deliver those lines with the exact flavor of irony and detachment that Beckett calls for.   Two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, no stranger to Beckett, gives a memorable performance as Hamm in Beckett’s masterpiece, Endgame, which is currently at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in a double bill with Beckett’s Play, a lesser known absurd comedy written in 1963.  These two Beckett one acts are well-executed revivals that pair well together.

Play opens with a spotlight directed on the three babbling ashen faces protruding out of three huge funeral urns, placed side by side.  A man (M), Anthony Fusco, occupies the middle urn, while his wife (W1), René Augesen, occupies the left urn, and his mistress (W2), Annie Purcell, occupies the urn on the right.  Eternally together in the afterlife, locked in their urns and only able to engage in slight turns of their heads, Beckett uses this trio of lovers like a captive chorus.  Each is condemned to repeat his or her version of the affair for eternity.  One character speaks at a time, in a very mechanical and detached refrain, and only when the spotlight shines on his or her face.

A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell (left), A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco (center), and A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen (right) in Samuel Beckett’s Play, performing together with Beckett’s Endgame at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

After the realization that you cannot possibly comprehend all that is said because it is delivered too quickly, you begin to experience it as a concert, taking in fragments and understanding that the heads aren’t communicating with each other, they seem oblivious to each other.  Beckett is all about repetition, which is core to his discourse and is used as a means to unsettle some of our most fundamental notions of how humans function.  Once completed, the cycle of dialogue is repeated.  Hearing it all again, you begin to get a sense of Beckett’s brilliance, much of which will only come through if the timing and delivery of these lines is perfect.  Last Wednesday’s performance was delivered with admirable skill by this unharmonious trio of dead lovers.  A.C.T. core-acting company member Annie Purcell, who gave a vivid performance this February in as the daughter/sister, Janine, in A.C.T.’s Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, again gave a compelling performance as a seething woman who felt she had won the love of this man (M) and scorned her rival, his wife Augesen (W1).  The wife, of course, has a different take, she feels she owns him.

What makes Play all the more interesting it that it somewhat models Beckett’s personal experiences.  When Play premiered in June 1963, Beckett had recently married his long-time companion of twenty-odd years, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil.  He had also resumed his long-term affair with Barbara Bray, the acclaimed BBC script editor, who had moved to Paris to be near him.  When Play premiered, Bray not only attended but reviewed it favorably for the venerable Observer, referring to the man (M) as “scooting breathlessly back and forth between the two women, perhaps the worst of the bunch: all need and weakness and feeble, if amiable duplicity…” (A.C.T.’s program p 20).

Bill Irwin portrays the invalid, Hamm, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Endgame, one of Beckett’s best plays, takes its English name from the final part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left, and the outcome is obvious. Its French title, Fin de partie, applies to games beyond chess as well, but there is no precise English equivalent for the phrase.  Beckett himself was an avid chess player.   Endgame is a commentary on death and our transition through life.  Beckett has whittled human drama down to the bone—longing, relationship, abuse and hope.  Everyone meets Endgame on a different terrain based on their own individual life experiences, aesthetics, and needs.  Some will see it as the story of a master and slave and others as that of an overworked caretaker tied by some means to an ill or dying man.

The setting is minimalist.  A bare, partially underground room is inhabited by four characters—Hamm the master (Bill Irwin), Clov his servant (Nick Gabriel), and Hamm’s father, Nagg (Giles Havergal), and mother, Nell (Barbara Oliver).  Hamm is blind and can’t walk and is in a wheelchair that also might be a throne. He makes Clov, who cannot sit, move him around the room, fetch objects, and look out the window for signs of life, of which there are none. Nagg and Nell have no legs and reside in huge trash urns and are fed and watered daily by Clov.  Inside this bleak little world, staged wonderfully by Daniel Ostling, the characters pass their time waiting for an end that never comes.

Bill Irwin, who has acted in Waiting for Godot three times, brings a vibrant energy to Hamm.  Irwin delighted audiences with his perfect comedic timing and remarkably elastic body movements as the wily servant, Scapin, in Molière’s Scapin, which opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season.  In Endgame, even though Hamm is confined to a chair, Irwin manages to make him the life of the party, using his dancing eyes and sharp facial gestures to imbue him with human spirit, so much so that we pity him.

Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performing together with Beckett’s one-act Play at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There is a strong and palpable chemistry between Irwin and Nick Gabriel, who plays Clov. The two are well-synced in their sparse dialogue and numerous pauses but an almost comedic undertone locks into place between the two, overshadowing the necessary cruelty, abuse and anxiety that are part and parcel of the power-tripping relationship Beckett calls for.  When Clov delivers sadly powerful lines like “No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we,” we don’t understand the full extent of their perverted existence.  In this regard, A.C.T.’s enactment of Endgame falls short of its full dramatic potential. On the other hand, watching Nick Gabriel move about the stage, re-arranging a short step ladder so that he can peer out through the windows into one of two views of oblivion and report on it to Hamm, is slapstick brilliance.  So is Gabriel/Clov’s brief encounter with what he thinks is a flea in his trousers.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any two actors with more instinctive mastery of the physical gesture than Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel.

Beckett is frequently criticized for making people feel stupid because they don’t get it.  There’s plenty to ponder in this double bill—our human response to loneliness—but there’s a lot that’s laugh out loud funny too, even if Beckett’s characters are too exhausted to laugh themselves.

Run-time:  Play is 22 minutes long, followed by a 15 minute intermission and Endgame runs for 90 minutes

Cast Play: René Augesen (W1), Anthony Fusco (M), Annie Purcell (W2)

Cast Endgame: Bill Irwin (Hamm), Nick Gabriel (Clov), Giles Havergal (Nagg), Barbara Oliver (Nell)

Creative Team: Carey Perloff (Director), Daniel Ostling (Scenic Design), Candice Donnelly (Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Fabian Obispo (Sound Design), Michael Paller (Dramaturg), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting Director), Elisa Guthertz (Stage Manager, Megan Q. Sada (Assistant Stage Manager), Daniel Ostling’s staging

A.C.T. InterACT Events:

Audience Exchanges: May 22, 7 p.m., May 27, 2 p.m., June 3, 2 p.m.
After the show, stick around for a lively Q&A session with the actors, moderated by a member of the A.C.T. artistic staff.

Killing My Lobster Plays With Beckett: May 24, 8 p.m.
San Francisco’s premiere sketch comedy troupe offers an original, Beckett-inspired performance 15 minutes after the final curtain (approximately 10:15 p.m.). Possible sketches include “Hunger End Games,” “Cooking with Clov,” and a speed-dating sketch featuring Beckett characters.  Admission is free, but seating is limited. Ticketholders for the May 24 performance will receive priority seating but must RSVP—information will be emailed to you separately.  Non-ticketholders who wish to attend can add their names to the waitlist by sending an email to lobster@act-sf.org with their name and requested number of seats (limit two seats per person).

OUT with A.C.T: May 30, 8 p.m., The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty. Visit www.act-sf.org/out for information about how to subscribe to OUT nights throughout the season.

PlayTime New!:  June 2, 2 p.m.
Get hands-on with the art of theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive preshow workshop. Doors open at 12:45 p.m.; the workshop will begin promptly at 1 p.m.

Details: Endgame and Play end on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays, with several 2 p.m. matinee performances, including Wednesday May 30, 2012, Thursday, May 31, 2012, and all Saturdays and Sundays of the run.  Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.

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May 22, 2012 - Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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