Who else in Houston are you going to trust to do justice to the creepy dysfunction and blasted-earth absurdity of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett, than that theater company of raging imagination and utter theatricality, Catastrophic? If Waiting for Godot (1952) is his masterpiece, then Endgame (1957) is his cry from the heart, and with this production Catastrophic cements its position as Houston's leading advocate of the experimental.
James Joyce has always been cited as one of Beckett's major influences, especially in the early novels and poems. But in this intermissionless, 90-minute work of anguish and resignation, there is plenty of mighty Shakespeare. Endgame is Beckett's Lear, where even nature has turned gray and leaden, and where life, never happy to begin with, gets worse, then repeats.
Blind and unable to walk, Hamm (the phenomenal Greg Dean) rules his cinder-block bunker of a kingdom from a ratty chair anchored to a platform on casters. He wears fingerless gloves, like Dickens's oily Fagin, a round button of a cap and soiled remnants of a bathrobe. He is bemired in filth. Everything in this claustrophobic room is dusty, corroded, covered in rust and decay (terrifically conjured by scenic designer Laura Fine Hawkes, costumer Kelly Switzer and lighting designer John Smetak). Something terrible has happened outside. Life is gone. "Zero, zero, zero," we're told.
He is served by toady Clov (an equally amazing Troy Schulze), a schlump who can't sit down, and who must zig-zag his feet to get into a wide stance to pick up anything. He shuffles about to do Hamm's bidding, and you can almost see a cloud of unhappiness cling to him. His shoulders are rounded, his chest caved in, and his suspenders seem to be the only thing holding him upright. He's right out of the school tradition of the great silent film comedians in all his stage actions: forgetting to bring the step stool so he can peer out one of the two high small windows, he remembers it in a sigh, turns around and hobbles to retrieve it. Once he reaches the window and clumps up the steps, he realizes he's at the wrong window. He must start again. Everything is a chore, yet he cannot leave Hamm. Like the best of Beckett, nobody can leave. Schulze has deadpan down to an art.
At the side of the stage stand two trash cans with lids, inside of which are Hamm's parents, Nagg (Joel Orr) and Nell (Mikelle Johnson), who slowly push open the tops when they're called forth by Hamm. They're like Alice's Dormouse peeping out of the teapot. They're covered in a ghostly pallor and live in past memories. Although awakened to a happily remembered "yesterday" and dreams of bicycles, Beckett gives Nell the play's most potent line: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." And Endgame is funny, although the existential comedy gets more serious as it progresses, and nobody's laughing by the end.
Beckett writes despair with majesty and thrill -- which is where he's so like Shakespeare. His words are etched with a purity that takes one's breath away. In an absolute stream-of-consciousness, words pour out of all four characters that not only allude to the Bible, Dante and Beckett's beloved Joyce, but most definitely to the Bard himself. There is impeccable craftsmanship in his dramatic writing that is the very essence of action. "What is there to keep me here?" asks Clov in abject desolation. Hamm simply answers, "the dialogue."
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Hamm flounders in the dark while Clov stumbles through the light, yet neither can live without the other. But it's not all doom and gloom in Beckett's world. There is hope in the bunker, if only a fleeting glimmer, to be sure. His characters cry out for release, for death to save them. Hamm astutely observes of his dying father, "If he's crying, then he's living." In Beckett, that's a lot of life.
The magnificent Endgame gets a magnificent treatment from Catastrophic. If man's wretched existence ever needed a finer hand to paint comic despair, look no further than director Jason Nodler with his quartet of superlative interpreters all in the service of the apocalyptic vision from Samuel Beckett.
Beckett's view of the end of the world runs through March 3 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. Purchase tickets online at www.catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723.