I like to think of myself as a theatre aficionado, mostly because I did shows in high school and have seen Wicked twice. Because of this self-title, I go into most productions with confidence in my ability to, you know, figure out what’s going on.
My cockiness did not serve me well with the Arden’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Here’s the puzzling description to give you an idea of the imagination required of the show:
“Hamm can’t stand up. Clov can’t sit down. Neither can leave the single room they’ve shared for who knows how long. For them, the end is in the beginning.”
That’s it. Cryptic, right? The point, it turns out, is just that. Beckett meant for his play to be open-ended so that the audience could interpret it as they wished. And, if I’m being quite honest, the show (almost) lost me about an hour in. Why does that guy have leg braces, and what is keeping him trapped here? Why does that other guy want a dog made out of electrical wires? Where exactly ARE they?!
Luckily, the Arden felt my pain and offered a post-show discussion with the assistant director. I learned that an “endgame” is a chess term for the third of a round of three games when there are only a few pieces and options left, yet the game must be completed. This relates to the play because the characters seem to exist in a monotonous time warp with struggles that won’t quit. (Hint: it’s a metaphor for life.) I learned that Beckett wrote it as a reaction to World War II and the question of God’s existence. I learned that other audience members also thought the characters live in some sort of purgatory, and that the ending’s ambiguity left others pining for more, too.
The story itself doesn’t stray much from the plot of two guys in a room. Don’t worry about getting bored, though. To break up the potential monotony come theatre vets Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern, who also happen to be Temple professors, as the protagonist’s elderly parents. Their parts are slightly disconcerting because, well, they’re legless and stuck in trashcans. But they’re also melancholically hilarious, and Boykin’s character Nell offers my favorite line of the show: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” The parents only show up for a few minutes, but they are heartbreaking in their helplessness.
Outside of the acting from all four performers, the play’s best quality is its set. I don’t want to spoil what the designers meant for it to represent – for that, you’ll have to either figure it out while watching or by staying after for the discussion – but it reminds of a wartime bunker, with industrial-looking ceiling fixtures and limited natural light. The theater is small enough so that the audience can feel as if they too are trapped in that dingy space, pondering the meaning of it all.
Now that I’ve had time to process its intricacies, I can better appreciate Endgame as a work of absurdist humor. If you’re willing to take this challenge, you can purchase tickets online for full price; however, student rush (only ten bucks!) is available at any performance. Just show up half an hour before the show is set to start, and bring your college ID. And this deal is also featured in the PEX Pass!
Endgame runs until March 10th. The Arden Theater is located at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City.