Theatre review: ‘Endgame’ at Playhouse dark, unsparing and richly rewarding

Nick Bonadies
Spectrum Editor

“Finished, nearly finished,” says senior Tori Hirsch-Straus as Clov, in the first words of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” at Shafer Street Playhouse Friday night.  The line repeats throughout the play, a 1957 study of humanity’s last fragments, performing the chores of existence and inching agonizingly into oblivion.

“Why don’t you kill me?” says senior Tommy Callan’s Hamm to Clov, the only self-ambulant character in the play.  She responds, “I don’t know the combination to the cupboard.”

The characters in “Endgame” are held together — after a conspicuously unspecified apocalypse — not by love or hope, but by need and mutual hatred.

The danger in a play like “Endgame” is its treacherous balancing act: on the one hand, it can come off too cold and too lifeless to be self-sustaining for the full 90 minutes; on the other hand, a play containing the line “there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness” can easily overplay its bitter comedy and miss the point of its tragedy.

The student production at the Playhouse this weekend, with second year theater grad student Phil Vollmer directing, skillfully avoided both of these. Taking full advantage of the self-conscious theatricality of the text (“Did you never hear an aside before?” snaps Hamm at one point — “I’m warming up for my final soliloquy,”) “Endgame” showed its audience four strange, pantomimed characters whose wants and needs were disturbingly real and familiar.

The 150-seat playhouse quickly filled to capacity Friday night in front of a beautifully-designed set; much like Beckett’s writing, the set was a collection of visual suggestions and half-saids, a dulled, bleary memory of a place or a half-remembered nightmare.  Eerie sea-green windows flanked a dusty, decrepit room barely lit by a single hanging lightbulb.

When Clov removes the dirty sheets covering the room’s sparse furnishings — an armchair for Hamm, and two trashcans for his legless parents (Ian Page and Emily Marsh) — the audience realizes, coldly, that Hamm has been lying there beneath the sheet for the entire seating.

Callan and Hirsch-Straus make for a formidable dual act as Hamm and Clov, who bicker inanely through a bizarre codependence.  Hirsch-Straus never quite lets on what exactly Clov sees outside the shack’s dirty windows, but expertly prods the audience’s imagination in all the most dreadful directions.  Callan’s acting compensates for lack of movement and eye contact (Hamm only removes his black-lens glasses sporadically) with intricate subtleties: every miniscule, jerking reaction to every noise, touch, and movement in Hamm’s void is painstakingly considered and executed.  Page and Marsh, as Hamm’s helpless, babylike parents Nagg and Nell, portray creatures as hilarious as they are pitiful.

For Friday night’s audience, Vollmer’s production of “Endgame” never became — as is another danger with the new or “experimental” — an exercise in avant-garde endurance.  Up to the chilling final moments, with the light bulb fizzing to black, “Endgame” at the Playhouse was challenging, engaging theatre that brought its audience to cackling as much as it did to despair – and oftentimes, both at once.

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