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Good: (l-r) Chandler and Corkins in Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Endgame.

Darkness brilliant

By Kathryn Geurin

Endgame

By Samuel Beckett, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, through July 24

Berkshire Theater Festival’s mas terful production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame opens in silence, in darkness. Emptiness long enough and black enough to be uncomfortable. When the lights come up on the Unicorn stage, they come up on stillness, on the exquisitely bleak set by Gary English, a skewed, shadowy void that creates shifting senses of vastness and confinement, isolation and oppression. At center, a dingy tarpaulin drapes a seated figure. Down right, another tumbles over a pair of canisters on the dark floor. Pinpoints of gray light peek through the tattered, smoky curtains masking two high windows on the upstage wall.

Clov (David Chandler) enters into the emptiness, frayed and twisted, every movement its own small agony. In a minutes-long, painful and silent sequence, heavy with routine, he moves and mounts a ladder to open the curtains and peer through the filthy windows. He then whips the covers away, revealing two rusted trash bins, recessed into the stage floor, and a frozen figure, glowing palely in ivory brocade robe, like a wan moon in Dan Kotlowitz’s island of light, his sturdy frame locked in a makeshift wheelchair, a gauzy, blood-stained rag draped over his face. “Finished,” Clov’s first words explode into the silence. “It’s finished, nearly finished. It must be nearly finished.” And so Endgame begins.

As master artists value negative space—the place between the figures, the story in the emptiness—the challenge and the brilliance of Beckett exists in the subtext, the unspoken, negative space of dialog. Every page of Endgame has the potential to sing with heart-rending brilliance, and every page is fraught with potential disaster. It’s a play with no plot. One of its two main characters is blind and can’t stand, the other can’t sit. The final two live, legless, in trashcans. Their conversations are disjointed, the characters never touch.

But director Eric Hill and his superlative four-person cast are, too, masters of the negative space of performance: silence, stillness, shadow, and subtext. They imbue every word with layers of meaning, every silence with the echo and ache. And, as Beckett entreats, they plumb the darkness for all its anguished laughter.

As Hamm, Mark Corkins crafts the chairbound abuser from remarkably complex cloth. At once godlike, kingly, childish, manipulative, needy, hopeful and cruel, he employs his commanding voice with extraordinary control and, despite being locked behind black lenses, delivers a captivating performance that pierces to the core.

As Clov, Chandler limps through his doglike duties with the weariness of a man who insists, convincingly, that he has never known a moment of happiness in his many years. But the real power of his performance builds, not on Clov’s pains, but on the whips of unrealized potential Chandler weaves through his sackcloth exterior.

As Hamm’s toothless, can-stricken parents, Nagg and Nell, Randy Harrison and Tanya Dougherty are as beautiful as they are mangled, as warm as their world is icy. In a masterstroke, Hill cast strikingly talented young actors in the elderly rolls and, with the assistance of Charles Schoonmaker’s all-white costuming and makeup, they create a haunting and angelic pair, caught at simultaneous points between their prime and their end.

At every turn, Hill has guided the play carefully away from the cerebral pitfalls that so often doom productions of Absurdist theater and allowed it to breath and blossom with all the anguish and hope of its deeply human heart.

It is a brilliant and vital piece of theater, through and through. Without a doubt, one of the best plays to ring from the region’s many stages. Despite the weight of Endgame’s bleakness and despair, the sheer power, empathy and artistry of its creation renders the result uplifting. If you can get there, for the love of theater, for the love of creativity, of humanity and this oft-accursed earth, go see this play.

 

She’s Got It

Women of Will

By Tina Packer, directed by Eric Turner

Shakespeare & Company, Founders Theatre, through July 24

Shakespeare & Company founder and former artistic director Tina Packer bestrides the stage like a colossus at the beginning of Women of Will (subtitled “A Prelude” for the planned five-part Women of Will: The Complete Journey to be performed at the end of August), the latest evolution of Packer’s analysis and performance of Shakespeare’s female characters. Her “acting partner,” as Packer later calls Nigel Gore, soon joins her slightly upstage by stating sheepishly, “I come bearing testosterone,” which earns the first of Women of Will’s many laughs both from the audience and the two actors.

Such mildly sexist’s diction is the stuff Women of Will is made on, and, with the first of several assists from their unseen partner, stage manager Diane Healy—“a little music Diane if you please”—a prom slow dance plays, and Packer launches into Kate and Petruchio’s “How bright and goodly shines the moon” exchange from The Taming of the Shrew. To make the power dynamics even clearer than the text, Gore places his black leather belt around Packer’s neck and leads her about the stage. This melds into Kate’s infamous “Fie, fie! Unknit that threatening unkind brow” monologue on the capitulation of wives to their husbands and then the true starting point of WoW. “I can’t say this,” Packer says, her commanding voice dripping with disdain. “From where I’m standing, Kate’s had her food, her sleep, and her language taken from her,” Packer declares, “she’s either gone mad or into ‘baby talk land.’” Then, in one of the tour de theater displays that are WoW ‘s spine, Packer does the speech again, first as mad woman, then shifting effortlessly into “baby talk land,” eliciting howls of laughter on “fowl contending webel” and concluding the monologue in a perverse submission beneath Gore’s black boot.

Packer then takes the audience through the first of several rapid-fire analyses of Shakespeare’s plays and WoW’s central questions: “Why is a 21st century feminist focused on a dead white male?” Packer asks and answers. “The title of Women of Will itself has several meanings: obviously ‘Will’ in the sense of William Shakespeare. By looking at the women in the order in which Shakespeare wrote them, we can see how his attitude towards women changed over the years. ‘Will’ also means ‘will power,’ and so we look at how women use power or how it is used against them. ‘Will’ in Elizabethan English also means ‘sexual desire,’ for and of women. So we will look at how women use their sexuality or how it was used against them.”

As much as the performances of the scenes from Shakespeare’s cannon (another tour de force display is the melding of the Rosalind/Orlando and Desdemona/Othello wooing/smothering scenes, seamlessly woven and raising issues too complex for a brief review to plumb), the exchanges between Packer and Gore entertain and inform. Aided by director Eric Tucker’s subtle hand and deft touch—the playing of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” by Etta James to start Act 2 as Packer and Gore break into a 1960s compendium of dance moves, and the playing of a ringtone of “Venus” by Shocking Blue (“She’s got it, yeah baby she’s got it”) in the audience during Elizabeth Woodville’s seduction of Edward IV—Women of Will:A Prelude not only promises great things, but delivers them.

The three-hour running time flies by; you would not want Shakespeare’s canon sliced, diced, and served up as a succulent hors d’oeuvre by less talented hands than Packer’s.

—James Yeara

 

Missing by Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation

By John Guare, directed by Anne Kauffman

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 25

One instantly feels the sterility of the lives of the central characters in Six Degrees of Separation, a play that seems to be about connections, but that cleverly expresses this with a negative: separation. We are told in the famous monologue, which has entered the popular idiom in terms of an addictive-if-senseless game, that everybody in the world is separated by only six people. That is also to say, if you can find the right six people you can establish a connection between yourself and someone famous (like Kevin Bacon). The bite in playwright John Guare’s take on this comes, however, in how he explores the much-sought connection through its opposite term, separation.

It is more a play about how people fail to connect despite their overarching need to do so. If one can cut through some of the verbosity (much of it clever) and the symbols that sit rather too heavily on stage (particularly a double-sided painting by Kandinsky), one can appreciate the breadth of Guare’s reach. It is his desire to show us how, even when there is but one degree of separation, people still fail to connect. It’s a heady mix that includes the barriers between various social groups: homosexuals and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, parents and children, husbands and wives, and (at the esoteric end) kitsch and art, art lovers and art, and the individual and his or her imagination.

Fortunately Guare’s métier is comedy, which leavens much of the underlying angst and misfortune. He based it on a true incident in 1983 wherein David Hampton, a black youth pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier, here known as Paul Poitier, conned his way into the lives and homes of wealthy New Yorkers. His marks are phonies who yearn for ever more status to give themselves the illusion that their empty lives have meaning and adventure. It seems that all of them will turn to acquiescent jelly with the promise of a role in the film version of Cats, which Paul convinces them his father is making.

That this production ultimately doesn’t work—or work quite so well as the film version—may owe to the subtleties with which the actors paint their characters. As the main marks, the Kittredges, Margaret Colin and Tim Daly are not so invested in making their characters dimensional as were Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland. Although she improves at moments over the course of the 90-minute running time, Colin is too broad at the outset and never succeeds in gaining our empathy in the pivotal role. As two of the Kittredge children and the son of a duped doctor, three members of the WTF non-Equity company are a poorly directed lot who do much shouting and overacting. Only Lauren Blumenfeld as Jen, another daughter, registers with a truthful performance of alienated youth.

Faultless work is contributed by Ned Eisenberg as a doctor who is both comic and realistic, while non-Equity members Benjamin Mehl, Lucas Kavner and Ariel Woodiwiss all acquit themselves without indulgence. The rest of the cast do their jobs but fail to make impressions.

It is Ato Essandoh’s Paul who really powers the piece. Whether offering a spot-on impersonation of Sidney Poitier, a rapid fire Poitier filmography or a stunning speech on the nature of Holden Caulfield, Essandoh is handsomely at home. His matter-of-fact Cats con and his periodic throwaway ironies are deployed both slightly and quickly enough to befit a demigod of mischief. But when he leaves the stage, there is little to hold one’s interest, save Guare’s cleverness.

Antje Ellermann’s set flies apart on cue and is appropriately, apart from the Kandinsky, colorless, but it is also an image that bores and does little to compel one’s attention in the awful auditorium of the main theater. It is endemic of what afflicts this production. With so much sterility, too many uninteresting performances and Anne Kauffman’s clinical direction, the production fails to connect even within six degrees.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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