Castastrophic’s Endgame: Does Beckett get any better?

Catastrophic Theatre’s stark, unflinching production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame demonstrates exactly why this company and its artistic director Jason Nodler are so important to the city’s cultural life.

Catastrophic answers a particular need by producing a kind of theater no one else is doing. For want of a better descriptive, call it the avant-garde — whether that means the early-to-mid-20th century classics of the movement such as Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros or new works such as its recent staging of Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is. Certainly no other group in town is doing such work this consistently, nor with the commitment and skill that distinguish every moment of Endgame.

Nodler is returning to a playwright widely considered the pre-eminent force in Theatre of the Absurd, and to one of his seminal works of the 1950s that established him. Nodler previously directed Endgame in 1995 for Infernal Bridegroom Productions — essentially, Catastrophic’s forerunner — then, as now, with Greg Dean in the pivotal role of Hamm (and an as-yet-undiscovered-by-Hollywood Jim Parsons in the other lead role.) That production was fine, but the current one surpasses it in intensity, atmosphere and absolute rightness.

Endgame unfolds in a prison-like room whose two small windows admit no light. Old, blind and cranky, Hamm sits in his wheelchair and bosses his sniveling servant Clov. They enact their well-worn and meaningless routines: Hamm alternately lamenting and raging; Clov worryng and whining as he comes and goes with little, shuffling steps, to open the curtains, wind a clock and such. A typical exchange: “What time is it?” “The same as usual.”

Periodically, Hamm orders Clov to lift the lids of two large ash cans to check if his ancient (and apparently legless) parents are still alive. Miserable Nag and his more resigned wife Nell pop their heads out of the cans to voice their own grievances and memories.

As the characters torment each other, Beckett reflects humanity’s cruelty and the  prickly symbiosis of any close relationship. Hamm abuses and insults Clov, yet needs his assistance. Clov complains about the mistreatment, yet obeys and never leaves. At one point, Hamm promises Nagg a sugarplum if he will listen to a story  — then after reciting a meaningless story with no ending, sneers that there are no more sugarplums.

Hamm gets his own comeuppance. He asks repeatedly if it’s time for his painkiller, with Clov slyly replying “not yet.” Near the end of the play, Clov finally relents, “Now it’s time!” — then dashes Hamm’s hopes by announcing that there’s no more painkiller.

There’s not much of anything, as we’re told that there’s no nature left, and “outside is death.” Beckett concerns himself chiefly with endings — the last futile struggles of the last survivors in a dying (or already dead) world. “Finished, it’s nearly finished,” Clov says early in the play, reiterating the thought near its close.

If Endgame serves up a four-scoop sundae of futility, Nodler and his cast give each scoop a different flavor. (Hey, great ad quote! “All your favorite flavors of futility.”)

Dean’s bravura Hamm sustains an awesome nastiness and tenacity. In his peaks of impotent fury, he is rageful as King Lear — minus the regality, of course.

Troy Schulze’s Clov is an inspired creation with his idiosyncratic gait, stoop-shouldered posture, deft timing, deadpan irony and occasional twinkle of mischief when he snatches a moment of fun making Hamm suffer. Schulze nods to Beckett’s love of great silent clowns such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, for whom Beckett once wrote a short film.

You might think actors can’t make much headway in roles that keep them shut up in ash cans for most of the running time — but Joel Orr and Mikelle Johnson absolutely blow the lids off with their fantastically effective portrayals of Nagg and Nell. The squinch-faced misery of Orr’s Nagg is unforgettable, while Johnson brings a kind of placid grace to Nell’s hapless resignation. That the “canned” supporting characters register so strongly is another sign of how surely Nodler has realized and balanced all aspects of the play.

John Smetak’s lighting, Kelly Switzer’s costumes and Laura Fine Hawkes’ imposing yet claustrophobic setting assure that the production looks just right, too.

Like life, Endgame is funny, sad, tough, pathetic, absurd. It reverberates with those bewildering, unanswerable questions of existence  Why are we here? Where are we going? Can it all have any meaning? At least someone very astute and dedicated gave serious and prolonged consideration to the same questions — and he couldn’t figure it out, either!

In that regard, maybe Endgame does offer consolation, of sorts. Then, now or whenever, at least we’re all in the same leaky boat.