By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
For a fan of absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, is there anything as comforting as seeing two large garbage cans on stage when the curtain comes up on Endgame? A pair of his great oddballs, Nell and Nagg, will pop their heads from those cans, as they always do, to further elucidate or confuse things.
The cans are a sign that a modern classic is about to begin, perhaps the last thing Beckett, who died in 1989, would have wanted: people becoming comfortable with his plays, knowing what to expect and even anticipating their own takes on it.
But wait — the success of Endgame, like any stage work that holds up, depends greatly on its production, a point being roundly proven this week at the Annenberg Center. There, the visiting Gate Theatre of Dublin is performing a rich and precise Endgame, the story of an old blind man named Hamm, his longtime servant and the parents he has either thrown away, or who have ensconced themselves, in the trash.
Endgame premiered in 1957 in London, four years after Beckett’s Waiting for Godot first played in Paris, and they share themes: meaning and meaninglessness, existence, the circular nature of our lives.
In both, the Irish-born playwright looks at two sides of the same tarnished coin; on one side, he examines the repetitive routines we adopt, need, or maybe fall into unawares, and on the other, he sees planetary routines that repeat themselves, the beginnings that turn to endings and then begin again.
I don’t mean to make either Godot or Endgame sound burdensome — I mean to make them sound thoughtful and thought-provoking, and that’s where the Gate Theatre production simply shines. Endgame is less accessible than Godot, but the old blind man (Owen Roe), his valet (the revered Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern), and his can-confined parents (Rosaleen Linehan and Des Keogh) come across as surely as possible in this eloquently-delivered rendering.
Alan Stanford directs the production on Eileen Diss’ aptly confined set, which takes up only the middle of the stage. Endgame is being performed through the weekend in repertory with Gate Theatre’s rendition of Beckett’s novel Watt, which McGovern adapted for the stage.
On opening night Tuesday at Endgame, whose last seconds call for brief tableau, the audience got one, followed by some odd lighting ups and downs that may or may not have been a part of the production. No one knew how to react, whether this version was finished, whether something else would begin — the sort of questions Beckett encourages. So no one applauded for several confusing seconds.
Now that would have thoroughly pleased the man, you can bet.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Endgame: At Annenberg Center's Harold Prince Theatre, 3680 Walnut St., through Sunday. Tickets: $20-$48. Information: 215-898-3900 or www.annenbergcenter.org.