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Performers Bring Beckett Play to Life at City Club

By BETSY M. HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday December 05, 2003

So what if it isn’t Christmasy—some people might even see that as a plus. 

The knockout production of Samuel Beckett’s modern classic Endgame that opened at the Berkeley City Club last weekend could still be considered an early present. Anybody with any kind of interest in theater who hasn’t seen the play is bound to have a nagging plan to get around to it someday. And people who are familiar with it undoubtedly still have some questions that they’d like answered. 

Okay; now’s their chance. And a splendid one it is. The four actors who inhabit the characters are little short of terrific. (They don’t “play” their roles; they “inhabit” them and, frankly, I’m not eager to run into any of these people on the street). These are four powerful performances which make a difficult text far easier to comprehend on the stage than it is to read. 

The excellence of the performances is the result of laborious and time-consuming casting by director and co-founder Gemma Whelan. Although Wilde Irish Productions is a new company, and this is only its second production, the founders are veteran theater people and more than ready to meet the challenges of their sophisticated repertoire. 

In addition to her lengthy history in both acting and directing, Whelan is current chair of Mills College’ theater department. Her co-founder and executive director, Breda Courtney, has a long resume’ as an actor and playwright. In this production she embodies the touching role of the mother, Nell.  

While the play maintains its currency, it may still be useful to remember that it opened in 1957 when the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union had seemed very real for over a decade. “End game,” of course, is the term used for the last part of a chess game, when the final moves determine the outcome. In this staging, the chess imagery is quietly maintained through the physical appearance of the two dominant characters, Hamm (Robert Hamm) and Clov (Steve Nye).  

The play opens with the entrance of the crippled Clov, all-purpose servant and quasi-son to the blinded, immobilized, sometimes infantile, yet overpowering Hamm. (There is a curious coincidence in that the character—who may have been named after one of the biblical Noah’s sons—is actually played by an actor named “Hamm”—Robert Hamm, who claims, perhaps accurately, that he “was born to play the role.” The actor is gifted with an extraordinary voice which he uses to great effect in this production).  

The interaction between the two as they face the end of their world is the dominating movement of the play. Clov, that curious mixture of childish dependency and manager-in-charge-of-everything, is the only person who seems to have any hope of escape from this strange, and perhaps doomed, world. 

It’s a fair argument to say that both characters are modeled on their chess prototypes: Clov’s jerky steps are odd and perhaps reminiscent of the knight’s moves on a chessboard. Hamm, who has monarch-like authority over the tiny world of the play, is confined to a throne-like chair whose precise location is of critical importance to him. 

But the chess symbolism is muted (and perhaps overemphasized in this review); it’s quite possible to go through the entire play blissfully unaware of the whole idea. These are two uncomfortably human characters whose mutual dependency is a terrifying kind of reality that makes quite enough sense in and of itself. 

Martin Waldron (Nagg) and Breda Courtney (Nell) are quietly heartbreaking in their brief but significant roles as aged, discarded parents. They relate only to each other, but there is an honest kind of love between them that serves as pathetic contrast to the contorted emotions of the two main characters. Perhaps the ease with which they have been discarded from what passes for life with the main characters is in itself one of Brecht’s comments on the world he has drawn. 

Within the context of the play, the famous symbolism of the trash cans in which these two characters live is neither obscure nor silly. It is just part of the curious world the play presents. There is a certain inevitability about them and the symbolism, while blatant, fits flawlessly. 

Perhaps the most curious thing about this play is that it is actually not a depressing experience. One could argue that the content is actually pretty scary. But the abstract world which is drawn keeps this from being a raw appeal to emotions. It’s a tremendous play, and this is one terrific production. 

Endgame runs through Dec. 11 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. 644-9940.