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Incurable Despair

Theater Reviews

Mar. 26, 2008
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You’re on Earth, there’s no cure for that,” bellows Michael Corkins, playing Hamm in Milwaukee Rep’s production of Endgame. His outburst marks one of many instances when his rich stentorian voice erupts into violent disdain for the futility and wretchedness of human existence.

Despite the comic patter consistent throughout the play, this expression of despair for the irremediable suffering of mankind clings to the characters like the fog one imagines inhabits the world outside their decaying cocoon. Prolonged disease and decrepitude remain within; “Outside of here it’s death.”

The Rep has created an atmospheric prison to hold both its cast and its audience captive for the one-act Samuel Beckett play. The circular set resembles the interior of a metal drum, reinforcing the cyclical routines in which the characters enact to keep loneliness and anxiety at bay. Its reddish walls emit the sanguine glow of a rusty womb. Only four characters inhabit the stage: the blind and crippled Hamm, his parents and his servant Clov. Enthroned on his wheelchair, Hamm rules them all, a shabby monarch whose voice remains his only weapon. His is the hardest of all the roles, depending entirely on the nuances of the actor’s voice to express both imperiousness and dejection. Corkins’ sonorous voice is eminently capable of expressing melodramatic woe. It appears less adept at plowing the churlish depths of old age.

Laura Gordon and Torrey Hansen (distinctly resembling Compo, the aging ne’erdo-well from Britain’s Last of the Summer Wine) play Nagg and Nell. Acting as a kind refrain to the sad, self-indulgent melody of their son’s repetitive existence, their scant appearances were the most diverting parts of the opening night performance. They appear more human than Clov and Hamm, sharing a history that for the other two appears ambiguous and unresolved, despite their enduring bondage.

Lee Ernst is well cast as Clov. The play begins with him pushing back the curtain, circuiting the stage with his slow and stunt- ed steps. Actors playing Beckett’s ungainly Clovs and Estragons are placed in a precarious position between comic and tragic. Ernst walks the tightrope with competence. His every gesture punctuates his fatigue and hopelessness, moving the audience to rapturous laughter on opening night yet leaving me curiously unmoved. Perhaps that was Beckett’s desired effect for this well-worn humor: “It’s like the funny story we have heard too often: We still find it funny, but we don’t laugh anymore.”


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