American Conservatory Theater’s Samuel Beckett showcase intrigues

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American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is paying homage to modernist master Samuel Beckett. In a single bill, the A.C.T. has joined “Play,” one of Beckett’s rarely performed one-acts, with “Endgame,” Beckett’s 1957 work written in the absurdist style.

“Play” is Beckett’s illustration of a love triangle, drawn using minimal tools. Both “Play” and “Endgame” have sparse sets; “Play” is an empty, blackened stage where the actors’ bodies are hidden. They are encased in brass patina urns, their heads poking out like worms. African beads served as inspiration, but the design is reminiscent of funeral urns. The containers did indeed evoke lugubriousness, particularly when the characters began to voice their  sorrowful story of infidelity. A spotlight provided the sole source of illumination, both literal and figurative, upon the tales. The light served as the only cue for the pale, gaunt faces to express lament.

The performance demonstrates Beckett’s particularity in stage directions and writing.  Biographer Elizabeth Brodersen noted his “overwhelming compulsion to simplify.” Beckett crafted scripts stripped of overbearing stage directions — in fact, sometimes entirely depriving his actors of movement. However, Beckett’s stages are not open for interpretation. On the contrary, Beckett specified exactly what he required of his plays’ productions and nothing more.

In both “Play” and “Endgame”, the A.C.T. adheres to Beckett’s minimalist vision. Rather than being restricted by the eerie vases, the actors exploited their limitations — emphasizing their facial expressions and articulation. In the dazzling spotlight, these articulations became ghostly. Perfectly appropriate, as the audience is privy to the contrived love affair only after the fact; the phantom echoes of lovers scorned are chilling.

“Endgame” is a story of man’s unremitting need for man, the crippling fear of loneliness and the existential problems that, on some level, absorb us all. There is a universality to Hamm, despite his pitiless treatment of Clov. The staggering servant resists Hamm’s cruelty. He threatens to leave at every moment, even preparing a suitcase. Yet Clov never leaves. “Endgame” is thus an exercise in transcending consciousness. Why doesn’t Clov leave? Why does Hamm treat Clov — derived from the Latin clavus, which means nail — like a mere tool and then demonstrate, if only for an instant, a rare vulnerability that he obscures with shouts that beat the eardrum painfully — a testament to Bill Irwin’s facility with booming projection?

“Endgame” features Tony award winner Irwin, a renowned physical comedian who has earned a reputation for his prowess at interpreting Beckett’s works. Beckett’s oeuvre borders on existential abstraction and has been notoriously difficult for audiences to receive. Irwin leads “Endgame” as Hamm. Blind and confined to an armchair on wheels, Hamm is a callous old man who comes to life when Clov removes a dusty sheet from over him. Beckett again restrains characters — Hamm cannot move from his chair and must bark at Clov to reorient him around the room, while Clov limps about, a slight hunch to his back, carrying out Hamm’s directions with a paradoxically resigned and defiant air.

Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s mother and father, are contained in trash bins which are occasionally opened to feed each a biscuit — resources are scarce — and to allow for scant conversation. Although not blood-related, Clov can be seen as a continuation of this bloodline. Together, the four form a family, showing the parental-filial struggle that occurs across generations. Indeed, “Endgame” is absorbed with hierarchy. Hamm — whose name is a play on a “ham actor” — is uniquely obsessed with his position at the top of the hierarchy contained in his tiny two-windowed room.

“Endgame,” also a one-act, offers a glimpse into the tiny world of damaged souls who incur damage onto each other out of habit. This merciless behavior is their understanding of what it means to be compassionate to one another — they were never taught otherwise. And yet they cannot live without one another. It is no wonder all characters in this occasionally witty tragicomedy are disabled in some way. Their physical and emotional disabilities are a testament to the crippling effect of the internal loneliness that consumes and plagues people who simultaneously long for and are wary of intimacy. At the end of the game, however, as demonstrated by Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell, intimacy might be the only strategy left to cope. In the A.C.T.’s joint production of “Play,” and “Endgame,” the players show that intimacy can spurn and uplift in equal measure.