Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Endgame

Endgame, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, at the Arden Theatre Company, featuring Scott Greer, James Ijames, Dan Kern, Nancy Boykin. Directed by Ed Sobel. Philadelphia

Review: Endgame


By Wendy Rosenfield

For the Inquirer

The Arden Theatre’s current production of Endgame marks the first time this company--usually squarely in the province of narrative-driven plays and musicals--has taken on absurdist Samuel Beckett. So it’s perhaps not all that surprising that director Edward Sobel attempts to impose a sort of contemporary narrative on Beckett’s timeless apocalyptic vision; not surprising, but disappointing.

In 1984, American Repertory Theater was famously made to add an insert to its Endgame program registering the playwright’s disgust at director JoAnne Akalaitis’ subway setting, incidental music and interracial casting. This last element, he explained, added unintentional sociopolitical overtones. It’s also the key element in any argument for or against following Beckett’s very specific stage directions to the letter. 

Beckett’s intention (bare room, two windows) was a lack of specificity, a stark depiction of the human condition. Sobel’s intention, or at least the result, is utter specificity, a depiction of these humans’ specific condition.

The bare room is instead the subterranean clearing between a collapsed overpass complete with dangling automobile, and a subway stop, its windows an air duct and a hole punched through the cement overhead. Designed by Kevin Depinet, it’s an arresting image, but again, pretty darn specific. Rather than a bloody handkerchief covering the face of Scott Greer’s Hamm, it’s a newspaper (also an obvious message in that choice), and Dan Kern and Nancy Boykin’s trashcan-bound Nagg and Nell wear midcentury middle-class dress covered in a layer of dust and debris--a robin’s egg blue suit and pillbox cap for Boykin, suspenders, a newsboy cap and plaid shirt for Kern. Beckett (and his dialogue), however, called for Hamm’s parents to be infantilized, clad in bonnets, crying for “Me pap!” 

And yes, James Ijames’ Clov, here, the Chaplinesque, jumpsuit-clad servant to Hamm’s master, is African-American. So, does Hamm and Clov’s racial dynamic matter? Of course it does, particularly since Sobel chooses to end the play with the departing Clov clad not in a Panama hat and tweed coat as Beckett instructed, but rather a Kufi-style skullcap and tan tunic. Make of that what you will.

Despite Beckett’s objections, when Akalaitis’ production premiered, reviewers believed her liberties didn’t affect his message. This time, this reviewer believes the playwright was ill-served. Greer and Ijames are ringers, and it’s no small pleasure to watch them interact; Greer in particular, forceful and august, might well be the inspiration behind the Arden’s interest in this play. But Sobel chooses a grim route that belies Nell’s declaration, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” There’s not much to laugh at here, but plenty to puzzle over.

Playing at: Arden Theatre, Arcadia Stage, 40 N. 2nd St. Through Sun., Mar. 10. Tickets: $36 to $48. Information: 215-922-1122 or www.ArdenTheatre.org

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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