Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Endgame," at the end of my college years

Elaine Stritch and Alvin Epstein as Nell and Nagg. Photo by Richard Termine from

I will be leaving the East Coast in less than two weeks, so it's appropriate that the last play I will see in New York City for quite some time was Endgame. (I feel Beckett would've appreciated the humor in that.) Many thanks to my Shakespeare professor for the opportunity to see this--he offered me a ticket as a way of apologizing for not being able to see my play. He drove 9 of us students to the matinée at BAM on Sunday.

As always happens when Vassar takes students to BAM, we sat up in the balcony, but at least this time I was in the front row of the balcony, not the very back--a decided improvement, even though I believe Endgame would work best in a smaller theater. At least I was close enough to realize that John Turturro, especially with the stubbly beard and dark glasses that he wore to play Hamm, looks remarkably like one of my uncles. Which makes a kind of sense, if you think about it--Turturro is an Italian-American who has successfully played several Jewish characters (Barton Fink, Quiz Show) and my uncle is half-Italian and half-Jewish.

(Coincidentally, this same uncle gave me an amazing edition of Waiting for Godot/En attendant Godot, with the English and the French texts on facing pages, last Christmas. "You're the only person I know who'd appreciate it," he said.)

I think the scene between Nagg and Nell was my favorite part. I never expected that I'd get to see Elaine Stritch live onstage, least of all in a Beckett play, and her playbill bio is a real hoot! After listing most of her credits in straightforward fashion, she writes:
She then won an Emmy for the edited version of Elaine Stritch at Liberty produced by Sheila Nevins and John Hoffman for HBO. Following her triumph (she just won't quit) she filmed Paradise for Showtime TV in Salt Lake City; the movie aired in November 2004. She can also be seen in Monster-in-Law starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez, as well as Romance and Cigarettes, directed by John Turturro, whom she adores. Oh, and by the way: she opened the Café Carlyle in September 2005 with her very first cabaret--ever. And, in September of 2006 she did her second ever cabaret. Where else? The Café Carlyle. No need for a car and driver for this gig--she lives (over the deli) permanently at the Carlyle Hotel. Time goes on, or by, or whatever, and in April 2007 Ms. Stritch was introduced on the last episode of this season's television show 30 Rock as Alec Baldwin and Nathan Lane's--would you believe--mother! For which she won an Emmy I'll have you know.
Her co-star, Alvin Epstein as Nagg, also has an impressive resumé. He "made his NY stage debut in 1955 with Marcel Marceau, then as the Fool in Orson Welles' King Lear, Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot...Clov in the American premiere of Endgame", and "more than 150 other productions on and off Broadway," including many other Beckett works. I love how he says that as founder of American Repertory Theater, "he acted leading, supporting, and tiny roles." Really, an incredible career--my God, why doesn't this man have a Wikipedia page?

Anyway, these old pros were very sweet and touching as Nagg and Nell. In a way, though they are the oldest characters onstage, they are the easiest for the audience to relate to--since they best remember the time before whatever apocalyptic catastrophe befell their world. They may start off as grotesques, but really, they're the most human figures in the play.

Hamm, on the other hand, sees himself as a larger-than-life character. When I think of Turturro I tend to think of the whiny, adenoidal Barton Fink, so I was impressed with the rolling, self-consciously theatrical voice he used for Hamm. I will not soon forget the booming cadences as he shouted, "The dialogue!" (in response to Clov's question "What is there to keep me here?"). Max Casella emphasized the comic aspects of Clov, playing him with a bandy-legged limp and a jutting-out belly, like a character in a silent film.

I once read a theory that Hamm is like "hammer," and Clov, Nagg, and Nell all are etymologically related to "nail" (clavo in Spanish, nagel in German, nail in English). Which is interesting, because in the play Hamm really does hold the power, wield the force. How does he get such power, being blind and wheelchair-bound? I also started thinking about the connections between Endgame and Shakespeare's most apocalyptic tragedy, King Lear. (I see I am not the first person to think of this.) Specifically, how in Lear, Edgar tells the blind old Gloucester a lie in order to save his life (the marvelous "mock suicide" scene). In Endgame, Clov lies to Hamm too, but is he doing it to help him, or to cruelly torment him? Can it be both?

Oh well, I don't want to get too bogged down in theories of Beckett. In the end, you can't stage or act a theory--a point that Turturro, Epstein, Stritch, Casella, and director Andrei Belgrader are all quick to make. I'll leave you with this great interview they did with, including several classic Elaine Stritch-icisms, such as "I think [Beckett] is a selfish son of a bitch."


Marc Acito said...

If you have a chance, rent Elaine Stritch's one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty. It's written by John Lahr of the New Yorker and is quite wonderful.

Marissa said...

Thanks Marc! I didn't realize that was on video (though duh, she won an Emmy for the HBO broadcast...). I'll have to check it out!