If you attend musicals, there are classic composers and lyricists that you should see. Similarly, if you attend plays, there are seminal playwrights (in addition to Shakespeare). One of these is Samuel Beckett, a 20th century author of a number of absurdist comedies. Currently, the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB) is doing one of these plays (Endgame, 1957); it has the added benefit of being directed by one of the few actor/directors left that actually worked with Beckett when he was alive, Alan Mandell (FB). When we discovered that Endgame was on the Kirk Douglas schedule while seeing a show at the Ahmanson, we decided we should take advantage of Hottix and catch it. We were able to get seats, and so after a lovely dinner at Picnic LA (FB), we entered the absurd world of Samuel Becket.
Endgame is hard to describe. It is a four character play. The lead is Hamm (Alan Mandell (FB)), an old man confined to a wheelchair, who is unable to walk and unable to see. Taking care of him is Clov (Barry McGovern), who may be his son (it is unclear). Clov is unable to sit down. Near him, in two ashbins, are Hamm’s elderly parents, Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae, at our performance, alternating with Anne Gee Byrd (FB)). They do not have legs. The setting, which Beckett is very particular about (i.e., no interpretations allows) is a small empty space. Left and right back, high up, are two small windows, curtains drawn. At the front right is a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture. There are the two ashbins, front left, touching each other. Hamm is in the center, in an armchair on castors, initially covered with an old sheet.
The play consists of Clov taking care of Hamm, and Hamm directing Clov to do various things. At points Clov tries to go away, but he rarely succeeds for long, being constantly called back to take care of Hamm. Nagg and Nell interact with each other for a bit, but Nell passes away at some point. Nagg also interacts with Hamm, being requested to listen to a story the Hamm wants to tell after Clov refuses to listen to it. At the end of the play, Clov finally indicates that his leaving. He then stands there, dressed to go, while Hamm continues on believing he has been abandoned.
You can find a more detailed plot summary at SparkNotes. You can actually find the text of the play at the Samuel Beckett website.
One of the questions I had watching this play is: What led Beckett to write this? After all, it is such a strange play, it is difficult to see how the situation and dialog could come to a playwright. But I guess that’s why I’m not a playwright. Beckett wrote this play during an era when Theatre of the Absurd was popular. It was a post WWII-style. According to Wikipedia, Theatre of the Absurd focused largely on the idea of existentialism and expressed what happens when human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down, in fact alerting their audiences to pursue the opposite. Logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence. It is up to the audience to decide the meaning of the piece.
As I’m a Professional Audience™ PEND , here are my thoughts on meaning.
The primary thought that kept going through my head while watching the performance was the relationship of my wife to her mother. Her mother is in assisted living right now, dealing with mental deterioration. The resulting relationships of parent to child, caregiver to caregivee, is a lot like the relationship between Clov and Hamm. Hamm is elderly and utterly dependent on Clov to feed him, clothe him, give him medicine, and fulfill his every need. Hamm is also non-sensical, often living in the past, at times petulant and vindictive, not caring about those around him, gruff and bitter, and at other times resigned. If you have ever seen a parent dealing with cognitive impairment or Alzheimers, that is exactly the behavior. Clov, on the other hand, is like any adult child taking care of such a parent. He keeps wanting to leave, wanting to have his own life, but is trapped in the endgame of taking care of his parent because he’s the only one who is able to do so. This game has worn him down so that any love that has been there has been replaced by forced duty, forced obligation. Whatever relationship there once was has been eroded away. At the end of the play, Clov finally decides to be his own man and walk away and take care of himself for one — but never quite makes it out.
So what about Nagg and Nell. I think they were the memories of the parents in the mind of Hamm. Often, for such patients, they are living in a quasi-world where both the past and the present exist in their mind. Clov was required to play along with the artiface, as caregivers often do.
There are some wonderful lines in the production that seem to support my interepretation:
- Sometimes I wonder if I’m in my right mind. Then it passes over and I’m as lucid as before.
- Sometimes I wonder if I’m in my right senses. Then it passes off and I’m as intelligent as ever.
I’ve certainly felt that way.
That’s the primary interpretation that was in my head. The secondary interpretation was more of a joke, but as I thought about it… it made quite a bit of sense: Endgame is a political argument on Facebook. Hamm represents the person posting the initial article and defending it with all sorts of convoluted argument. The argument draws people into a discussion they can never quite leave, and into which they get trapped — until they just decide to walk away. Nell and Nogg, in this case, are side digressions that support the story but go in unexpected directions. The fact that everyone in the discussion is crippled in one way or another is a representation of the fact that nobody on Facebook is playing with a full deck.
But Beckett couldn’t have been talking about Facebook. After all, it didn’t exist in era when the play was written.
In general, the story focuses on the larger issue of dependency, and the dispair that dependency can bring to us. Hamm is dependent on Clov. Clov on Hamm (he has the keys to the larder). Nagg on Hamm. And so far. As we are dependent for longer, we become handicapped by our dependency, and it traps us. The term “Endgame” refers to the chess position where the final set of moves are dictated and cannot be changed. Our dependency traps us into an endgame. How do we escape? Nell makes that clear: she escapes by dying, after she refuses to be dependent on Nagg. At the end, has Clov refused enough to escape? We never find out.
The discussion above is the demonstration of one important take-away about this performance: it was good enough to make people think about a variety of subjects. It provided the ability for the elderly cast (I don’t think there has been a cast this elderly on stage since the last production of 70 Girls 70) to demonstrate their expertise with Beckett — this was a rare chance to see some of the foremost Beckett performers on one stage. It was at points humorous, sad, befuddling, touching, relevant and irreverent. It was outstanding.
Normally, at this point, I would turn to a discussion about the performances. All were spectacular, and it was difficult to single anyone out. Central to the story were the spot on performances of Alan Mandell (FB) and Barry McGovern. These are foremost interpreters of Beckett; they know how to convey every nuance of the story. Our Nagg (James Greene) and Nell (Charlotte Rae, at our performance, alternating with Anne Gee Byrd (FB)) worked well together; I hesitate to say chemistry, for that implies there is a reaction between the two. I think the overall ensemble was just interesting to watch. Note that Ned Schmidtke was the understudy for the male roles.
Turning to the production and creative side: The overall production was directed by Alan Mandell (FB), whose experience with Beckett was demonstrated in the overall ensemble and portrayal. John Iacovelli (FB)’s scenic design captured well the bleakness that Beckett intended from the text: a cold-grey stone castle, with two inset grey windows, grey dustbins, dirty dropcloths, grey clothing. A world of despair, with nothing to live for except the life from the characters. Maggie Morgan (FB)’s costume designs were equally bleak: grey, black, and dark-brown bed clothes and suits, adding to the atmosphere. Jared A. Sayeg (FB)’s lighting design was strong, as usual: mostly white lights, often kept dimmer, adding to bleakness. A lack of color. Cricket S. Myers (FB)’s sound design was what a good sound design should be: unnoticeable. The few sound effects that were present worked well. Rounding out the production credits: Susie Walsh (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; John Sloan (FB) (Assistant Director); Brooke Baldwin (FB) [Stage Manager]. Michael Ritchie is the Artistic Director for Center Theatre Group.
One last note: After the performance, there was an audience discussion on the meaning of Endgame. This discussion was led by Isabella Petrini (FB), and was excellent. Isabella also curated the Endgame game in the foyer, and we had the pleasure of talking to her before the show. Isabella’s company, Bae Theatre (FB), has a show at the upcoming Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB): Matt and Ben. It sounds interesting, and is written by Mindy Kaling. Alas, I have already booked my schedule, and do not have room to fit it in, but figured I would mention it.
Endgame continues through May 22 at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB). Tickets are available through the Center Theatre Group online. Hottix may be available. All offers for Endgame on Goldstar have expired, but tickets are available to the next show at the Kirk Douglas.
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At the last minute, an opportunity arose for live performance today as well. As you recall, The Colony Theatre (FB) had gone dark due to financial problems, although there was the option for subscribers to potentially attend lease events. One such event was this weekend: Carney Magic, an encore performance of a previous successful lease. Carney Magic is what is purports to be: 90 minutes of sleight of hand magic by magician John Carney (FB).
So, how was the magic? Entertaining. I couldn’t see how it was done, but it was also a relatively straightforward slight of hand show. There was audience participation. There was humor.
I think the larger question for me was: This fellow is entertaining and does corporate shows. Is this a possibility for ACSAC in December? That I haven’t decided yet. I want to see Einstein at the Fringe Festival first.
I will note there was one thing that was sad about the show: seeing the lobby and waiting area at the Colony. Evidently, it is a full-on lease house now, and all the photos of past productions are down. All of the furniture and old props are out, replaced by simple uncomfortable seats. The art gallery is empty of art. The character is gone. I felt like I was identifying a corpse in a hospital, and that was sad. The patient may not be dead yet, but she’s definitely moved out to either Board and Care or Assisted Living, and it was sad. We may, alas, be in the Endgame period for the Colony. And that’s sad.
Production credits for Carney Magic: Written and manipulated by John Carney (FB). Produced by John Carney (FB) and PFC Entertainment. Additional material by Jim Steinmeyer. Technical coordination by Genetra Tull.
We saw the last performance of this incarnation of Carney Magic.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) and the Hollywood Pantages (FB); my subscription at The Colony Theatre (FB) has gone dormant, and REP East (FB) has seemingly gone dark for 2016. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: Next week sees us in the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation from Berkeley. While there, we are seeing the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB)’s West Coast Regional Premiere of The Boy from Oz (but pay no attention to that production behind the curtain at the Celebration Theatre (FB) — if they start the same day, they are simultaneous premieres and both have equal bragging rights). We will also be seeing The Last 5 Years at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) (FB). May 21 brings Los Angeles: Now and Then (FB), a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has HOLDs for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and for I Only Have Eyes for You at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre (FB).
That brings us to June. June is the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and I’ve already written about the shows I plan to see, as well as suggestions to the Fringe regarding viewing the audience as a customer. Our Fringe schedule is as follows:
Whew. July brings us back to conventional theatre, with Beautiful at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the Western Corps Connection (FB) the first weekend, a HOLD for Grey Gardens at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB); the second weekend, The Little Mermaid at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB); the third weekend, Weird Al Yankovic at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) and Operaworks (FB) Opera Re-Constructed at CSUN; the fourth weekend, a mid-week Hollywood Bowl (FB) concert of Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Copeland, and a HOLD for Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB) the last weekend. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.