ARThound

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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From stage to screen, once you’ve seen “Incendies,” the film, A.C.T.’s staged version, “Scorched,” falls Flat

Twin siblings Janine (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell) and Simon (Babak Tafti) attend the reading of their estranged mother's will, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of my best friends is a librarian and I often hear about how a book is almost always much better, richer, than a movie adaptation.  When a play is adapted into a movie, as is common these days, the play isn’t always better.   A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, which opened on February 22, 2012, is infinitely less moving than French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, the film adaptation.  The gut-wrenching drama coheres and resonates profoundly on screen, while A.C.T.’s stage version, directed by Carey Perloff, fails to mine the intense and shifting emotions at the heart of this haunting story.  A.C.T.’s production suffers from poor casting, lackluster acting and other confusions, some of which might be worked through in subsequent performances. Thematically, the material is golden, a Greek tragedy for our time: you can’t choose your family and, try as you may, you can’t escape family either.

In Scorched, we meet twenty-something twins Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon Marwan (Babak Tafti) in present-day Montreal, as they are being read the will of their late mother by notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn ) who was also her employer near the time of her death and friend.  He hands them letters addressed to a father they were told was dead and a brother they didn’t know existed, letters that their mother stipulated must be delivered before she can be given a proper burial. “Childhood is like a knife stuck in the throat that cannot be easily removed,” the notary says.

And so begins the unraveling of our assumptions about what we think we know about childhood, happiness, and the security of a family’s love.  As the twins gradually discover the tortured history of their mother and of their own origins, that bizarre adage starts to resonate.  Childhood isn’t simply being young; it’s also the experience of being someone’s child.  For Janine and Simon, being the children of Nawal Marwan has been painful and her death is equally complex, leaving them with a world of questions.  They’re sent off on an epic quest — first Jeanne, and later a far more reluctant Simon — to their mother’s homeland.  The balance of the story unfolds in this barren and unnamed Middle Eastern land which has a history of Christan-Muslim violence much like that of Mouawad’s homeland, Lebanon, in the 1970s.

In fulfillment of her estranged mother's final wishes, Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives Janine (A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell) a jacket with the mysterious number 72 embroidered on the back, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The story itself is a rich melding of drama, mystery, and war-time epic.   As the twins slowly unearth how perversely their family history is tied to the region’s conflicts and violence, the narrative alternates between their present day investigation and their mother’s journeys and trials decades earlier.

Featured actor David Strathairn, as Alphonse Lebel, the notary entrusted with settling Nawal Marwan’s estate with the twins, gives such an affecting performance that he steals the dramatic thunder from Nawal Marwan’s tragic story and the twins’ evolving perspectives. The Emmy-award winning Strathairn, who rambles, spouts malapropisms right and left, and tries out several accents, comes off  much like  detective Monk, the endearing comedic TV detective played by Tony Shalhoub.  Is he meant to evoke a holy fool who guides the twins to the truth?   Who knows—but the alchemy feels very off given the weak performances of the other major characters and the serious emotional tenor of the play.  

It is really the women who should be the dramatic focus.  Nawal’s story at its core, despite its almost unbelievable twists, is representative of the universal struggle of women in war torn, repressive and male-dominated societies everywhere.  The early love scenes between Marjan Neshat, Nawal from ages 14 through 40, and Nick Gabriel as her lover Wahab (a Muslim refugee), which should really hook us, are devoid of passion.  As we see Nawal mature, we understand through dialogue, not her acting, how at odds she is with the perverse context into which she’s been inserted.  Jacqueline Antaramian gives a very affecting performance as Nawal at 60 and earlier in the play as Nawal’s mother.

L to R: Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives a mysterious notebook and letter to Simon (Babak Tafti) in fulfillment of Simon's estranged mother's final wishes in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Challenging in its own right, play is further confused by A.C.T.’s casting choices—there are several actors who are playing many characters and a couple of characters that are being played by more than one actor and a couple of the characters were played by actors of the opposite gender.  On top of that, some of the characters weren’t able to pull off consistent accents, particularly Omozé Idenhenre as Sawda, Nawal’s companion, who, on opening night, seemed to lapse in and out of various affectations.   In the Word on Plays that accompanies this production, dramaturg Beatrice Basso interviews the translator, Linda Gboriau, who talks about trying to subliminally clue the audience that some of the characters—notary and twins–are from Montreal and go to the Middle East where French is spoken but the audience hears them in English. At other times, when the drama is in the past, in the Middle East, other things were required linguistically. Of the many nuances Gboriau aspired to, few were polished by opening night resulting in a real mish-mash.

Of the twins, Babak Tafti, as Simon, does a great job of portraying his character’s inner emotions.  At first, Simon is dismissive and embittered by the sting of his mother’s abandonment but later, as the facts unfold, he works through the stages of anger, to what we sense is evolving compassion and deep confusion.  One of the highlights of Annie Purcell’s fairly flat performance as Janine is her fascinating digression into graph theory.  Janine’s an emotionally-stilted Ph.D. candidate in theoretical math and presents a riveting analysis of how the perspective she once had of her position in the family has shifted with the new information revealed in her mother’s will.  Her comfort zone—a vertice point on a polygon with a known number of visible connections—has shifted and she now has more connections to contend with and doesn’t know how to move forward.  It is evident that the very scars that Janine’s mother inherited from her mother’s abandonment have marred Janine as well.

L to R: A militiaman (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) apprehends Nawal (Marjan Neshat, left) and her friend Sawda (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) when he suspects them of being notorious revolutionaries, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad's “Scorched,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, March 11, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Truly, the psychic work of all our lives is to heal the wounds inflicted upon us by our parents.  In Scorched, we leave wondering if Nawal’s final decision, to lead her children on a journey toward the devastating truth, is too much for them to bear.  If you do see this play, go later in its run.  And be sure to catch the film, which was Canada’s official Oscar entrant and can be streamed on NetFlix.  The film touched a deep but smoldering place deep inside of me and had me thinking for days about my own origins and the emotional legacy I inherited from both my adoptive and birth parents, whereas the play came and went.   

Who is Nawal Marwan, the Woman Who Sings? In 2000, playwright Wajdi Mouawad learned the story of Soha Bechara, a Lebanese Christian with pro-Muslim sympathies, had attempted to assassinate the commander of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army during the Lebanese Civil War and was subsequently incarcerated in the notorious Khiam prison for a decade. She was sentenced to solitary confinement in a cell adjacent to the room where inmates were tortured. “For ten years,” Mouawad told CBS News, “she heard the crying and pain of the tortured. To try not to become mad, she began to sing. She sang the songs she knew—popular songs. The people in the jail who heard this woman but never saw her, called her The Woman who Sings. She gave them hope and courage to survive.” Bechara became Mouawad’s inspiration for Nawal, the mother whose history is uncovered by her children in Incendies. (Words on Plays, p. 6)

Details: Scorched performs a limited run February 16–March 11, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday–Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment