By Suzanna Berger, medicine Assistant Director for Endgame
For a play about life after apocalyptic tragedy, Endgame is packed with comedy, and Endgame rehearsals have often proved hilarious.
The choreography of the play itself leads to amusing guidance from director Ed Sobel such as, “I think you’ll have to hit your head again there.” Nagg and Nell pop up from inside their trashcans, an image that may or may not have been the inspiration for Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch. Then there is the not uncommon occurrence of an actor halting mid-scene to turn out and ask, “Wait, why am I saying that?” In particularly daunting moments, the comforting refrain has become, “You know, it’s not too late to do Pippin instead.”
But all joking aside, these daunting, questioning moments have led to some of the most fruitful, discovery-filled exchanges of the process. They return us always to the relationships between the characters, what they want from each other, and how they go about their clumsy, cruel, or beautiful attempts to get it.
After a few marathon days onstage, the technical elements are all in place and the actors have learned to navigate their new terrain so that their movements are only funny when they – and Beckett – intend them to be. Runaway props have been tamed; the mechanics of pushing a chair on wheels around a raked stage have been conquered.
Now that these pieces are under control, the focus can shift to a fuller realization of the life of the play. One of the items on Ed’s work list this week is finessing the frequent shifts between comedy and despair. Beckett constantly positions these two conditions next to each other. As Nell declares from her trashcan living quarters, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” The juxtaposition can be hard on audience members: responding to the destroyed isolation of the world of the play, how easy is it to laugh at Clov’s tribulations as he maneuvers an unweildy ladder? Then again, how can we not laugh at the zingers Hamm and Clov use against each other?
The characters also deliberately use humor in their relationships. In an attempt to cheer up Nell, Nagg offers to tell her a joke he loves. After Clov’s barb, “If I could kill him, I’d die happy,” Hamm tries to lighten the mood with a return to routine, buoyantly asking, “What’s the weather like?” Each character’s response to these comedic attempts may go along with the upbeat turn, or may be the very thing that sends them – and us – tumbling back into the despair that things will never change. But perhaps these swings also give us hope that we can do better in our own interactions, that we are banging our heads against metaphorical walls that are as much of our own creation as the set on which the play unfolds.
After all, Endgame is a play that each person experiences differently. Its meaning comes from what you, as an audience member, see in it – how it affects you emotionally, what connections you find to your own life, or to the state of the country. As we prepare for our opening night, I’m looking forward to listening for the laughter, sighs, startles, and silences of each audience, sounds that bring a vital harmony to the music of the play.
Endgame runs on the Arden’s Arcadia stage through March 10, 2013. After each performance, audience members are invited to join in a discussion of the play with a member of the artistic team.