The real question to ask of any Endgame is whether it's worth the pain of sitting through it. The answer depends on you. For most, Beckett is an acquired taste, and Endgame is one of his strongest, strangest flavors. The production that closes the Seattle Beckett Festival, directed by Rob Raas-Bergquist, is a long, creaking, and occasionally shrieking ride along rusted rails through a blasted, ash-covered landscape where nobody's nice and everybody would rather be somewhere else (including, on the night I attended, several yawning and fidgeting audience members).
The festival has been running since August, and may have won some new converts to Beckett's dim, squinting, hunchbacked theatrics. Others will agree with the man sitting in front of me who lamented during intermission, "God, I hate Beckett. We live, what, 45 degrees north of the equator? I already know the world is dark!" He flipped off the stage. "Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou!" He volunteered that he might like Beckett better if he lived in Guyana.
The relationship between Endgame's main couple is much more astringent and tortured than the bumbling love between Godot's Vladimir and Estragon. At least Didi and Gogo had the luxury of fresh air and a tree; Hamm and Clov are stuck in a closed room while a deadly, possibly thermonuclear wasteland waits outside. Blind, grizzled Hamm sits in a chair, unable to stand, holding a filthy handkerchief he affectionately calls "old stancher," while the younger Clov limps around the stage, doing Hamm's bidding and hating every minute of it. "Do this, do that, and I do it," he moans. "I never refuse. Why?"
Meanwhile, Hamm's parents—Nell and Nagg—live in garbage cans on stage left, literally sitting in their own shit. "Has he changed yours?" Nagg asks Nell, referring to Clov's job of putting fresh sand in their litter-box cages. "No," Nell says. "Nor mine!" Nagg complains. "I won't have it!" Of course he will have it and, this being Beckett, will have it for all time.
Endgame is already a brutally austere play, and Ghost Light Theatricals amplifies the punishment wherever they can. Their theater, the Ballard Underground, is a tiny concrete basement and a sonic hot zone. Lots of lines are delivered as ear-rattling screams, and a loud silver whistle had audience members covering their ears every time Hamm reached for it. Matthew C. Gilbert is ferociously surly as Clov, Craig A. Bradshaw is an imperiously cranky Hamm, and Steven Sterne and Melissa Fenwick are appropriately pathetic as Nagg and Nell. With his white beard and sleepy eyes, Sterne especially lands the squirming wretchedness of his character when he bleats for food: "Me pap! ... Me sugar-plum!" In both instances, Nagg—addressed as "accursed progenitor" by his son, Hamm—is informed that he will never get more pap or sugar-plums for as long as he lives.
Leave it to Samuel Beckett to love his most bruising play best. In a 1956 letter to American director Alan Schneider, he described his new Endgame as "a three-legged giraffe" that was "an even worse affair" than his previous work. "Rather difficult and elliptic," he continued, "mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than Godot." In the years to come, he'd repeatedly refer to Endgame as "the one I dislike the least." He also noted that it served as a kind of inversion of Godot: "In Godot, the audience wonders if Godot will ever come," Beckett wrote to critic Alec Reid. "In Endgame, it wonders if Clov will ever leave." (If you're looking for more Beckett trivia, try Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld's Beckett in the Theatre. The actors' journals during various productions are especially revealing—they note the gnomic author drinking "breakfast beer," glaring from the back of the theater with a cigarette in hand, and rejecting almost all questions about the "meaning" of his plays by saying, "I don't want to talk about it." When he laughed, it was noted as a special event.)
The man who'd flipped the bird at the stage after Endgame said he'd actually come to the show because he was asked to by someone in Blood Ensemble, the young and bold company responsible for act two of the evening—NDGM, a world-premiere "response" to Beckett's Endgame. Written by Zach Hewell and directed by Emily Harvey, NDGM is set in the same trapped circumstances of Endgame but feels much less claustrophobic. Its five characters pass the time playing games with dice, repetitions, and truth-or-dare-type challenges that seem to have arbitrary rules: "I rolled a five, a three, and a one. That means you have to tie the bear to the flashlight." "I tied bear to flashlight, and that's 4, so you have to spin that cup!" They're all desperately trying to find some novelty in their hermetic world.
The one older character, Jethro (David S. Klein, whose face has a desiccated, Beckett-style look), speaks in full sentences about the climate-change disaster that stuck them in this situation. "Humanity devoted its very best minds to the problem, but it wasn't enough," he explains, but he's repeatedly interrupted by the stunted youngsters cooped up with him, who keep derailing any serious conversation with shouts about food or games in broken syntax. "It birthday!" one of the kids (Frisbee, played with devilish, bad-seed glee by Carrie Cates) keeps declaring. "I'm 25 or 26 or 27 or 28..." she chants until, as the stage directions say, she is "otherwise distracted." Distraction unto death is NDGM's primary theme, as opposed to Endgame's open acknowledgement of exhaustion and futility.
The bitter characters of Endgame have turned on each other long before the play begins, and NDGM serves as a kind of prequel—while Beckett's horror is primarily metaphysical, Blood Ensemble's is more naive and explicit. "We trial!" announces young Spek (Pearl Klein) toward the end. The arbitrary games change into life-and-death proceedings as characters are tried and sentenced according to rolls of the dice and childish whims. By the end, one has been shoved into the toxic outdoors, another is stuck in a garbage can with his tongue cut out, and a third is sitting in a chair as blind as Hamm. "It's too dark," she says, and reaches to turn off a nearby lamp. "That's better."