If you live in the Bay Area and have long promised yourself to experience a Samuel Beckett play, whom you have known since college days to be one of the great modern writers, you have an outstanding opportunity for a few more weeks.
Carley Perloff at ACT (American Conservatory Theater) has not just one, but two of his famed plays: Endgame, and Play. She has even persuaded Bill Irwin, well known locally as one of the original clowns of the Pickle Family Circus, to play Hamm, the principle character in Endgame.
Even though the peculiarities of a Beckett play are well known to most college graduates — characters encased in urns, trash cans, wheelchairs, mounds–it is another thing entirely to see this.
Perloff starts her two play evening with the shorter, and less well-known Play , in which two women, W1 (the wife) and W2 (the mistress) are encased in urns, showing only their faces, on either side of M, the man, similarly garbed. As the interrogating spotlight strikes each, in a planned randomness, each speaks. No light, no speech. If all are illuminated, all talk, unaware of the other. There almost couldn’t be a better encapsulation of Beckett’s themes and theater.
Endgame  is perhaps Beckett’s second best known play, after Waiting for Godot [1953.] Using the ‘endgame’ of chess [a game Beckett was devoted to] as his metaphor, Hamm’s endgame is all but determined; there is very little the king can do but make his short moves, postponing the end which has been planned in the opening and set up in the middle game. All four of the characters are excellent in the almost completely dialogic play; diction, speed and speech rhythm always remarkably good. To be otherwise, to speed the speech or forget to complete and then bite off the words, even if mumbling, would make it un-listenable and not understandable.
Clov [Nick Gabriel,] as Hamm’s servant, is the only one allowed full body gestures, which he is very good at — awkward, bent-over, comical and pathetic at the same time. He could have been Irwin himself in his younger years. Hamm is confined to a wheelchair, and yet, his hand gestures, head motions and voice, give him a largeness of expression that is sometimes surprising.
Endgame is not a play we capture at one sitting. Plenty has been written about it: doctoral thesis and groping interviews with Beckett himself both enlighten and mystify [here, here and here, for starters.] For a first time play-goer a little homework wouldn’t hurt, though seeing it with virgin eyes and ears has its own benefits. The studies can wait and other performances will certainly keep coming.
But, please, don’t miss Bill Irwin!
[NOTE: also watch for, a year from now, May 2013, for Black Watch, --"Hurtling from a pool room in Fife to an armoured wagon in Iraq, Black Watch is based on interviews conducted by Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq" --performing under ACT's auspices.]