Both terribly morbid and wonderfully brilliant, Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" and "Play" are difficult at first to understand. Beckett's focus on existential themes of death and the meaning - or meaninglessness - of life make any interpretation of his work difficult to enjoy on its own.
At Wednesday night's American Conservatory Theatre opening of the two one-act plays, the audience laughed occasionally as Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel dimly lit the drudgery of Beckett's "Endgame" script with delightful facial expressions and exaggerated tones of voice. The show follows a day in the life of a blind, immobile master, formerly of rich glory, and his servant, whom he plays word games with and forces to do ridiculous tasks, mistreating the poor soul on purpose. Director Carey Perloff creates a feeling of movement despite the play's stationary characters. But even with this well-staged production, great acting does not equal an hour and a half of entertainment.
Upon first viewing and without any prior familiarity, audiences new to Beckett's work spend too much time trying to understand "Endgame" - like why two of its characters live in trash cans - limiting their ability to take anything away from the play and resulting in boredom just a few minutes in. "Endgame" has plenty of juicy material to chew on, but the material does not stand on its own. It needs explanation. A.C.T.'s "Words on Plays" booklet comes in handy here, but even with the extensive commentary, "Endgame" works best as a piece of literature studied extensively and, then, perhaps watched with fresh appreciation.
Beckett's "Play" does a better job of entertaining and making its plot and meaning clear. Similar themes to "Endgame" exist, but the creative context of "Play" makes it far more interesting, and the short 20 minute length helps to keep the audience's attention.
In "Play," three heads appear on top of dark urns, able to speak only when an interrogating spotlight lights up their faces. The three take turns recounting the complexities of when the man cheated on his wife with his mistress. Beckett's characters live in a sort of limbo or hell, much like the punishments present in Dante's "Inferno." Forced to replay the petty details of their lives, they repeat their story once, giving audience members the missing ingredient of "Endgame": the ability to fully understand the story being told. René Augesen, Anthony Fusco and Annie Purcell glaze over Beckett's quick and witty dialogue with ease, all to perfect timing.
Playwright Samuel Beckett is a genius in words and metaphor, but while that brilliance translates on to the stage well for "Play," it does not translate so well with "Endgame." The A.C.T. creative team has stretched the script to its full potential, but its handsome efforts will mean little to those who have not done their homework.
ENDGAME AND PLAY
Through June 3
American Conservatory Theatre