Endgame is a signature Beckett piece. You’ll know exactly what to expect when you walk into it, or you’ll have no idea what happened when you walk out of it. Either way, it’s some crazy kind of engaging. The Arden Theatre Company’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is a surprisingly different twist on this curious play, thrown into a new light by another incredible set design framing vibrant performances headlined by Arden veterans.
Beckett was known for dictating very specific stage directions and emphatically disapproving of any stagings that varied from his austere vision. His plays strip settings to bare essentials, leaving the dialogue to primarily inform the audience’s examination of the human condition. It is peculiar that he demanded so particular a tableau, but was notoriously tight-lipped when discussing the interpretation of his plays. This suggests that he thought people who viewed one of his dreamscapes in a new way were somehow experiencing his playsÂ wrong.
The Arden’s set, which evokes a shattered highway overpass following some great cataclysm, complete with a derelict dangling car, is far more specific a setting than what was in the original stage directions. Rather than this specificity acting a detriment, it provides a modern relatable context forÂ Endgame. It gives a (very thin) thread on which to project your understanding of the setting, one that was informed by recent tragedies.
The characters of Endgame exist in a time beyond endtimes, where the landscape seems to be torn down to base elements. Water. Earth. Wind. And the dying light, only hinted at beyond the two small views to the outside where everything is gray and lifeless. Even though their hideout is a crumbling mass of concrete and bare steel, it feels vibrant when contrasted with the bleak nothingness that we learn is just outside. Beckett’s original vision of a vacant, plain room would make this all too abstract. The real-world trappings provide the audience with a thread of connection to the circumstances put forth in this play. You can see how two people would become like Hamm and Clov: some of the last barely-sane men in a world that has been blown to smithereens. This is not just nuclear winter they’re enduring â€“ undoubtedly a reference on Beckett’s mind when the play was written in the 1950s â€“ this is a place where reality itself seems to be slowly fading to black.
Scott Greer’s Hamm, looking like the king of the hobos, lords over his tiny fiefdom from his convalescent seat, blind and sedentary. His brash and also somehow fragile personality is counterpointed by the cheeky Clov (played by James Ijames). Bound to attend to his ersatz master, Clov paces about the small environment, physically unable to sit, driven to constant motion like an energetic child. The two spar and prattle and pass the time in the maddening way that all conversations must devolve after endless repetitions. All topics have been exhausted. All features of the landscape wiped clean, no matter how many times the blind man asks for a report or the hobbled man cranes his neck to spy out into the plain world beyond their mean little shelter.
This is the first time the Arden has offered a Beckett work, a notable departure from the more plot-driven fare they’ve often produced in the past. Theatregoers seek out an absurdist play like Endgame to expand their horizons. The sense of space provided by the set designed by Kevin Depinet evokes a fascinating new dimension to what would otherwise be an even-more-inscrutable play. You’re unlikely to see Endgame on any other stage quite like this. It would be a shame to miss out on the extra layer the Arden’s brings to it.
Endgame runs now through March 10, 2013. Ticket prices are $36-$48, with discounts available for groups of 15+, seniors, students, and military. Call the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, order online at www.ardentheatre.org, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd St. in Old City, Philadelphia. Post-show discussions are held after each performance.