Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, through July24
Berkshire Theater Festival’s masterful production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame opens in silence, in darkness. Emptiness long enough and black enough to be uncomfortable. When the lights come up on the Unicorn stage, they come up on stillness, on the exquisitely bleak set by Gary English, a skewed, shadowy void that creates shifting senses of vastness and confinement, isolation and oppression. At center, a dingy tarpaulin drapes a seated figure. Down right, another tumbles over a pair of canisters on the dark floor. Pinpoints of gray light peek through the tattered, smoky curtains masking two high windows on the upstage wall.
Clov (David Chandler) enters into the emptiness, frayed and twisted, every movement its own small agony. In a minutes-long, painful and silent sequence, heavy with routine, he moves and mounts a ladder to open the curtains and peer through the filthy windows. He then whips the covers away, revealing two rusted trash bins, recessed into the stage floor, and a frozen figure, glowing palely in ivory brocade robe, like a wan moon in Dan Kotlowitz’s island of light, his sturdy frame locked in a makeshift wheelchair, a gauzy, blood-stained rag draped over his face. “Finished,” Clov’s first words explode into the silence. “It’s finished, nearly finished. It must be nearly finished.” And so Endgame begins.
As master artists value negative space—the place between the figures, the story in the emptiness—the challenge and the brilliance of Beckett exists in the subtext, the unspoken, negative space of dialog. Every page of Endgame has the potential to sing with heart-rending brilliance, and every page is fraught with potential disaster. It’s a play with no plot. One of its two main characters is blind and can’t stand, the other can’t sit. The final two live, legless, in trashcans. Their conversations are disjointed, the characters never touch.
But director Eric Hill and his superlative four-person cast are, too, masters of the negative space of performance: silence, stillness, shadow, and subtext. They imbue every word with layers of meaning, every silence with the echo and ache. And, as Beckett entreats, they plumb the darkness for all its anguished laughter.
As Hamm, Mark Corkins crafts the chairbound abuser from remarkably complex cloth. At once godlike, kingly, childish, manipulative, needy, hopeful and cruel, he employs his commanding voice with extraordinary control and, despite being locked behind black lenses, delivers a captivating performance that pierces to the core.
As Clov, Chandler limps through his doglike duties with the weariness of a man who insists, convincingly, that he has never known a moment of happiness in his many years. But the real power of his performance builds, not on Clov’s pains, but on the whips of unrealized potential Chandler weaves through his sackcloth exterior.
As Hamm’s toothless, can-stricken parents, Nagg and Nell, Randy Harrison and Tanya Dougherty are as beautiful as they are mangled, as warm as their world is icy. In a masterstroke, Hill cast strikingly talented young actors in the elderly rolls and, with the assistance of Charles Schoonmaker’s all-white costuming and makeup, they create a haunting and angelic pair, caught at simultaneous points between their prime and their end.
At every turn, Hill has guided the play carefully away from the cerebral pitfalls that so often doom productions of Absurdist theater and allowed it to breath and blossom with all the anguish and hope of its deeply human heart.
It is a brilliant and vital piece of theater, through and through. Without a doubt, one of the best plays to ring from the region’s many stages. Despite the weight of Endgame’s bleakness and despair, the sheer power, empathy and artistry of its creation renders the result uplifting. If you can get there, for the love of theater, for the love of creativity, of humanity and this oft-accursed earth, go see this play.