"Endgame" and "Play": Just Like Being Stuck in a Room

In this town, it's heresy not to love Bill Irwin. The renowned clown and Tony Award-winning actor got his start in the Bay Area, where he was a founding member of the now legendary Pickle Family Circus. Each time he returns, as for his acclaimed 2010 performance in ACT's Scapin, he is greeted with the fanfare of a favorite son.

But for his recent performance in Endgame, the more substantial part of a double bill of Beckett, also at ACT, blaspheme we must. The play seems like a natural fit for the performer. Sure, it's post-apocalyptic, absurdist, and bleak, with characters stuck in a room they wouldn't want to leave anyway, biding time with one another only because they're too tired, or apathetic, or don't know how to kill — and end this. True, the script is inordinately difficult, a veritable soundscape of extremes: pauses alternating with linguistic cacophony, gibberish alternating with solemn, wry profundities, all in a precisely timed, syncopated rhythm. But historically, clowns like Bert Lahr (otherwise known as the Cowardly Lion) have been among the foremost interpreters of Beckett. When characters say things like, "I'll give you just enough to keep you from dying," or, "Mean something! You and I, mean something! Ah that's a good one!" the tone can be cruel and despondent as well as light and silly. Physical comedy is written into the script, with stage directions like, "Clov loosens his the top of his trousers, pulls it forward, and shakes powder into the aperture. He stoops, looks, waits, starts, frenziedly shakes more powder." To some extent Hamm (Irwin) and Clov (Nick Gabriel), the lead roles, are just as much Cormac McCarthy's father-son pair in The Road as they are Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy.

Irwin and Gabriel are clowns, but they perform in such different styles that they don't seem to inhabit the same dramatic universe. Irwin's Hamm — the elder, wheelchair-bound authority figure — is silly but distant. Because his character can't move, Irwin tries to squeeze the full force of his clowning into his line readings, which means he stretches his voice into as many different silly registers as Robin Williams doing the genie in Aladdin. Each choice is clearly the product of much care and thought, but there's a coldness about the performance that comes from a focus on mechanics at the expense of emotional reality.

Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver show how Beckett can look a lot like Whack-a-Mole.
Kevin Berne
Giles Havergal and Barbara Oliver show how Beckett can look a lot like Whack-a-Mole.

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Through June 3 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $10-$95; 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

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On the other hand, Gabriel's Clov, the younger, servile character, is intensely present and piteous. Hobbling along in shoes so long his pigeon toes meet to form a V, he looks like the archetypal sad clown, but he also has the deep awareness of the oppressed, registering and resenting every slight. On its own, each performance is a thoughtful interpretation of Beckett and a master study in technique and craft. But together they don't gel. The actors aren't listening to one another; instead, they respond only to their own sense of timing, deflating much of the humor in the script.

The real stars of this show are Hamm's parents, Giles Havergal as Nagg and Barbara Oliver as Nell, who, unfortunately, are only onstage for a very brief time. Hamm, ever the dictator, has "bottled" each in a trash can, which allows for much funny business with heads sticking in and popping out. Havergal and Oliver succeed precisely where Irwin and Gabriel don't. They use similar childlike, exaggeratedly demonstrative styles, and are keenly attuned to one another's timing. From the moment the elderly Nell, sporting a doll-like nightgown and cap, sprouts up from her waste bin to say, "What is it, my pet? Time for love?" the pair are sweet and callous, funny and heartbreaking.

The first work on the bill, Beckett's short Play, also features characters who are stuck in oblong vessels. It lasts only 25 minutes and has a full-length intermission afterward, so it functions as a sort of appetizer to Endgame. But the fare is middling at best. Rene Augesen, Anthony Fusco, and Annie Purcell each sit inside what resembles a giant beehive, only their heads visible. They chatter at a breakneck pace, a spotlight whipping back and forth to give a speaker the floor and then cut it off. It's all you can do to figure out that all three are telling the same story, about a wife who confronts her husband about his lover, from three different points of view, before the whole thing starts over and repeats itself. Play's cup runneth over with conceit and symbolism, to ends similar to those of Sartre's No Exit. But here that point doesn't seem worth what we must suffer through to get it.

 
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