Endgame: Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

[11 May 2010]

By Alice Singleton

When does Life-As-We-Know-It end? When all of our loved ones beat us to Death’s doorway? Our communities perish – decimated and torn asunder by organic and technological destructions; as the remaining players, mortally wounded, fall over like chess pieces on a terminally desecrated board? When one loses ones physical and mental faculties, no longer possessing the want nor the ability to feed and clean oneself?

Perhaps Life-on-Earth ends when the required Manservant serves up the last course of embitterment and moves on, dictated by wanderlust to a non-indentured freedom. Good help being hard to find, and keep, even post-Apocalypse. “Who, is really the Boss of Me”, a running brook that streams through Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame”, presented at Steppenwolf by ensemble members Frank Galati (Director), William Peterson (CSI, To Live and Die in L.A., Speed the Plow), Ian Barford (The Crucible, August: Osage County), Martha Lavey (Ghost in the Machine, Up) and Francis Guinan (American Buffalo, Kafka on the Shore, Fake).

Servant of the Damned, Clov (Barford), cannot find the words or intellect to answer to ponder the existential wonders of human existence; not anymore, because “life as we know (it)” has been obliterated; he’s overwhelmed fulfilling the last demands of physical comfort to, and being the recipient of metamorphic wordplay from soon-to be former employer Hamm (Peterson). He keeps Clov on his metaphysical toes, as Hamm can no longer stand upon his own. Their relationship has rotated the full one-eighty as quickly as their society has devolved; it has become – negotiable, equal of sorts and sordidness. What’s left is a barren dungeon of a room, glowering a grey hue back at its occupants. “Is there sun today”, a blind Hamm asks, knowing the answer, yet finding small pleasure in assigning another useless task to Clov.

Clov is “free” to come with the little sustenance needed; unnamed apocalyptic occurrences have left Hamm an intellectual and physical paradox –embodied head with torso and limbs seated on a throne of sorts, bellowing out for Clov for sustenance and mental horseplay; holding unto their old relationship in voice, yet in mind knowing that the pecking order has experienced a seismatic shift, with Hamm insisting that servant serve master until the bitter end in the same fashion in what is alluded to have been a bitter beginning. As Hamm reminisces on his former upscale status, which lasted almost to the end, having turned away or perhaps even done away with neighbors and drifters seeking his port from the end-of-the-world storms, and wonders aloud what is “out there”, Clov sticks a needle in his wanderlust – “there is no ‘out there’ anymore”. Is this Clov’s answer for the world, or just where Hamm is concerned?

Clov shuffles back and forth, sometimes giving full service to the bellows of the blind Hamm, other times missing his call. At Hamm’s insistence, Clov checks in on Nagg and Nell (ensemble members Guinan and Lavey), who were Hamm’s parents, when materials things still really mattered, but now they’re merely heads loudly muttering the nonsensical, begging for foodstuffs from their ashbins/tombs, no longer of this earth and gladly settling for what Clov throws what morsels that are left into what will soon be their tombs.  As Nagg and Nell literally pop up on occasion for their last meals, the banter between parents and son – is it real, or “reel”, playing out like the final loop as Hamm readies his move off the board? The conversation is never direct or enlightening.  There is no reference to past familiarities; because if there is no longer future between them, then there can be no past between as well.

There is a shuffling of minds and thrones, with Clov the only true player in the dank room. The first words of the play are Clov’s: “it’s finished”. What’s finished; and who owns the finality of our existence? Beckett challenges the long-held universal notion that our end - be that end on the group-rate single occupancy – will be determined by our chosen “master”.  No matter the nattering challenges, the simmering hissy-fit movements (a pristine “chess” tournament plays out with Barford and Peterson deliriously navigating “the throne” within a six-inch square to make a point about power – matters not who has it, but who it is that thinks he has it).  When all is said and unsaid, no matter how bad the day at the office, Clov finishes his duties, as good servants always do. “It’s finished”. “There’s nothing out there”, was not the instruction for Clov, it was the resolution for Hamm.

As with Waiting for Godot, Endgame offers up two answers to the eternal question: “everything”, and “nothing”; the question really doesn’t matter if this is all there is to existence. When we’re finished, we’re finished. No more negotiation. If there is nothing out there, then all of our negotiations are as good as the paper they’re written upon. It’s all over anyway, once we’re knocked off the Board.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/125395-endgame-6-6-2010-steppenwolf-chicago/