Somewhere in the middle of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame the annoyed servant Clov turns to his stationary master Hamm and asks, “What is there to keep me here?” Hamm breaks into a sly smile and responds coyly: “The dialogue.” Of course, the dialogue—that’s the only answer.
This back and forth is only one of many double entendres in Beckett’s script—not-so-subtle clues to the audience, like “I’m warming up for my soliloquy,” that explain just a little of what’s going on in this thickly abstract story—and here it applies not only to the characters’ predicament, but to the overall production as well. Whereas Clov seems unable to leave either Hamm or the desolate bunker they’ve been shacked up in since, presumably, some sort of long-ago nuclear fallout, the audience can leave the play at any time. But the one thing that binds this coproduction by Montana Rep Missoula and The Candidatos together is the dialogue, and more specifically its enactment by the play’s two leads, Justin Rose as Hamm and Kevin Wall as Clov.
Beckett is tough. His work isn’t just challenging for the actors—Rose alone has more than 300 lines in less than 90 minutes—but also for the audience, which is charged with sifting the minimalist offerings of humor, satire and tragedy, and interpreting the underlying (overlying?) existential themes for some sense of the play’s direction. There’s not much snap, crackle or pop to Endgame. In addition to Hamm and Clov, the only other characters are Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, who are both confined to trash cans. The setting is an underground bunker decorated with Hamm and his wheelchair, his folks’ containers, two windows and a door to Clov’s kitchen. The story is purposefully vague and open to interpretation, with few tangible facts slipping in: Clov can’t sit and wants to leave; Hamm can’t stand, is blind and nearing his end; the outside world is gray and dead. There’s not much left for the audience to sink its teeth into but the dialogue, and the hope is that you can just go with it, trusting Beckett, director Noah Tuleja and the performers to guide you along. And for most of this production, especially when Rose and Wall are on their game, the audience is in steady hands.
Rose and Wall, aka The Candidatos, first displayed their onstage rapport in last year’s production of The Candidatos original I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry. That popular absurdist comedy, which played to mostly sold-out runs before touring nationally at fringe festivals, was a two-man play full of bang-bang banter and physical comedy, so it’s no surprise to find the two commanding the stage and in their element performing Beckett. In fact, in some ways this performance is an even loftier testament to Rose’s and Wall’s talents, as they’re dealing with far more constraining and demanding content. I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry was silly at times, which made it easy to laugh out loud. In Endgame, Rose and Wall aren’t afforded the same latitude and have to work harder to elicit chuckles. One bit has Clov fetching Hamm’s stuffed three-legged dog and, as Hamm inquires about its specifics, Clov fumbles through his answers. “Is it white?” Hamm asks. “Nearly,” says Clov, avoiding the fact it’s actually black. It’s a funny moment, nailed perfectly by Wall and Rose, but Beckett’s script moves on quickly, before the audience can really enjoy it.
There’s more along the lines of the three-legged dog exchange, but there are also distractions along the way that, given such a nominal setup, are impossible to hide. The fact that the play is performed in the Schreiber Gym Annex, a space located next to a campus parking lot and usually reserved for theater rehearsals, is a drawback. Outside noise was a constant interruption to the show—car horns, rowdy students passing by, unknowing folks walking in the door—all of which could have been kept at bay in a traditional, or at least more isolated space.
There’s also one misstep in the casting. Whereas Rose and Wall set the tone, and an impressive Whitney Wakimoto follows the pace with her sad and wilting Nell, Jason Hicks never finds any rhythm as Nagg; his delivery is awkward and his boyish face, despite makeup, belies his role as Hamm’s father. Other nitpicky elements stand out as well. For instance: As good as Rose’s performance is, he seems more spry than decrepit, as his dying character is supposed to be, and both Wall and Rose occasionally seem to slip into their characters from I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry.
This production of Endgame is what it is: a showcase for The Candidatos. It shows these two talented local performers are capable of serious work, that they’re more than just clowns, and if they keep their promise about their next original work being even darker, that they’re willing to persistently challenge themselves and their audience.
Throughout Endgame, Clov and Hamm keep explaining that “Something is taking its course.” It’s tempting to think they’re referring to the future of The Candidatos. Beckett’s has long been assured.
Endgame continues each night through Saturday, April 22, at 7:30 PM in UM’s Schreiber Gym Annex. $10/$8 students.