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Review: 'Endgame' at the Undermain
by Jerome Weeks 14 Apr 2010

We don’t often get to see Samuel Beckett’s plays — he’s too grim, too confusing — so a stellar staging of ‘Endgame’ is worth celebrating. Directed by Stan Wojewodski, the Undermain’s ‘Endgame’ catches the beautiful, bleak poetry and the hilarious, morbid humor. Plus, there’s a second-banana performance by Fred Curchack that’s a shameless delight. Jerome Weeks reviews.


A quiet evening with the parents: Laura Jorgenson, Bruce DuBose and Fred Curchack in Endgame at the Undermain

Edward Albee begins his introduction to the third volume of the Grove Centenary Collected Edition of Samuel Beckett’s works this way: “You have in front of you one of the most important books of the second half of the twentieth century — the collected plays of Samuel Beckett.”

If so, Samuel Beckett may be our most important but least-produced playwright. Often, only Waiting for Godot gets staged: Even the adventuresome Undermain Theatre last produced a Beckett play 24 years ago. So KERA’s Jerome Weeks is grateful the Deep Ellum company has returned with Endgame — and an Endgame this good.

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Many people first encounter Samuel Beckett in a bad college staging of Waiting for Godot. Understandably, they write the Irishman off as too glum and difficult. Which is why his works are influential but little seen, despite his Nobel Prize.

But consider: Beckett never claimed to be part of the ‘theater of the absurd.’ Given their premises, his plays are rigorously logical, not absurdist. There’s none of the easy non sequitur surrealism of Ionesco or the turnabout-is-fair-play social satire of Genet.

The location of Beckett’s plays in some nowhere-or-other is actually just a stripping down to essentials. In Endgame, the character Hamm sits crippled and dying as he orders around his sardonic servant Clov. And Hamm’s feeble parents, Nagg and Nell, live in two trash cans.

What would it matter if all this were set in – Portugal? Endgame is about slow death and our comic-pathetic efforts to stall it or welcome it. How much detail and background do we need?

Still, if you’d like a conventional frame of reference: Endgame was inspired by Beckett’s care for his dying brother in 1954. So think of Hamm as wasting away in a hospital while  Clov is his unhelpful orderly. Or if the autobiographical seems too easy, too reductive, think of Endgame as King Lear — with laughs.

DuBose as Hamm, Jonathan Brooks as Clov

Yes, great laughs. Beckett is grim, but he rewards us with comedy and heartbreaking poetry (“You cried for night. It fell. Now cry in darkness.” ) The Undermain’s Endgame is directed by Stan Wojewodski, the former head of the Yale Rep and the new chair of SMU’s drama department. He’s had Tony Award-winning set designer John Arnone keep the stage admirably clear, even spartan, almost Japanese in its simplicity (it doesn’t hurt that the Undermain’s new elevated seating works so well). Most of all, Wojewodski has upped the humor and gentleness here.

Bruce DuBose’s Hamm isn’t the usual imperious monster. DuBose has grown into the role since he played it at the old Addison Centre Theatre (now Water Tower) nearly two decades ago.  It’s often remarked that Hamm means ham — an aging actor, full of vanity and stentorian demands. DuBose’s voice and manner certainly fulfill that description, but he also has an enjoyably wry quality. If he weren’t blind and wearing dark glasses,  you’d swear at times he was twinkly-eyed while he barks at Clov.

Hamm’s name can also evoke the son of Noah, suggesting this is a post-deluge world — only this time, God isn’t working to save humanity, and perhaps everyone’s better off that way (Hamm and Clov work hard to extinguish any signs of life, flea, rat or small child.) At one point, Clov mistakenly thinks the entire world has flooded — that vast emptiness outside is brought home through Arnone’s series of painted, silvery panels that line the back of the set, looking like minimalist, monotone landscapes.

Or seascapes.

Sugimoto small

Seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

But if this set design (and Beckett’s own work in general) can be described as minimalist, Fred Curchack’s performance  (and to a lesser degree, Laura Jorgenson’s as Nell) is maximalist. He gets everything out of the small role of Nagg, and pretty much steals the show. Curchack is like an old-style European clown crossed with a ghost out of Charles Dickens. His Nagg is grotesque and infant-like — horrible and needy and hilariously rambling (“I’ve never told this story worse!”), a shameless creature of impulses and hungers. Curchack is wonderful in it.

Beckett’s plays are minimalist because they try to examine – as nakedly as possible – the cold facts of life, barren of illusion. We waste our lives futilely waiting — for something, for various things. From the moment of birth, our bodies crumble towards death. We yammer in the hopes of finding meaning. Throughout his works the need to confess, to explain, to complain, to spin yarns, to crack wise, to pass the time (it would have passed anyway, as Beckett says) is as much a sign of the human condition as our (comic) creeping decrepitude and eventual death. That yammering voice fills the void (“a stain upon the silence”), it’s our creative force, the source of all our meaning.

But don’t attach too much meaning to it. It may just be a neurotic compulsion.

DuBOSE: Clov!


DuBOSE: What’s happening?

BROOKS: Something is taking its course.

DuBOSE: Clov!

BROOKS: What is it?

DuBOSE: We’re not beginning to – to – mean something?

BROOKS: Mean something? You and I? Ah, that’s a good one.

It is a good one. And the Undermain’s Endgame is a great one.

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    photos by: Ashley Randall