The latest issue of The New Yorker contains a cartoon of two stationary characters, one with arms crossed and the other with hands in pockets, on ice skates under a flashy banner announcing “Beckett on Ice.” The characters are Vladimir and Estragon from playwright Samuel Beckett’s famous minimalist study of existentialism, Waiting for Godot, and the humor of the illustration is that Beckett’s absurd work, known for its dearth of action, makes no sense paired with the sensational elements of theater—of anything—performed on ice.
Perhaps a more logical combination is the upcoming real-life pairing of the playwright’s work and Missoula’s superbly aesthetic and keenly absurdist theatrical duo, The Candidatos. Justin Rose and Kevin Wall introduced their vaudevillian physical comedy and classically morose clowning last year with an original play, I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry, which performed to mostly sold-out houses during two separate local runs and, in the interim, to critical acclaim on the American fringe festival circuit. I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry displayed some of Beckett’s style, especially its quick, repetitive dialogue, so it seems a natural progression for The Candidatos, in their first performance since that debut, to join with Montana Rep Missoula (MRM) to present another of Beckett’s renowned works, Endgame.
“It’s different, but there’s certainly a lot still in common,” says Wall after a recent rehearsal. “Beckett was hugely influenced by clowning and especially the early-20th-century European clowns—he went and watched them all the time, drawing a lot from their physicality. So, with Beckett, we felt it was something we could attach our style to, and we do. We’ve talked since the beginning about what sort of Beckett production we wanted and how it could be, oh, I don’t know, ‘Candidatosian.’”
The idea of having The Candidatos perform Endgame was not their own. Before setting MRM’s current schedule, artistic director Greg Johnson solicited suggestions from drama faculty at the University of Montana for plays they might want to direct. He specifically asked new assistant professor Noah Tuleja, a specialist in physical performance and stage combat, if he had any ideas—possibly something Irish that could be performed in March to overlap with St. Patrick’s Day. Tuleja suggested the Dublin-born Beckett’s Endgame, but wasn’t sure his nontraditional choice—the play was originally written in French—was what Johnson had in mind. Johnson accepted.
“Greg and I went to see I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry a week after deciding on Endgame, and almost at the same time we looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, I have an idea,’” Tuleja remembers. “We thought they’d be perfect for the material and when we approached Justin and Kevin about doing it they foolishly said yes.”
It’s purely coincidental that MRM’s schedule got juggled and Endgame ended up being moved to April for a run that includes a performance on the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s April 13 birthday.
“Oh, no, we had that planned all along,” Rose says sarcastically. “Honestly, I was doing research and came across his birthday and was like, Holy shit, look at that. It’s one of those things that just worked out and maybe will add a little something, some significance, to the shows.”
Endgame is a one-act play that centers on two characters: Hamm (played by Rose), an aging master who can’t stand up, and his servant Clov (Wall), who can’t sit down. It’s set in an underground bomb shelter and the script suggests they’ve been stuck there following some sort of nuclear fallout for a prolonged amount of time. Hamm and Clov—along with Hamm’s parents Nagg (Jason Hicks) and Nell (Whitney Wakimoto), also sequestered in the shelter and confined to garbage cans—spend their time bickering and searching for signs of life outside, their conversation repeatedly touching on themes of meaningless existence. Clov is intent on leaving but never seems to rally and Hamm is reluctant to accept his inevitable death. The title is supposedly derived from the last moments of a chess match, when pieces remain on the board but the outcome is already determined.
“Everyone always asks what the play’s about,” says Tuleja, “and that’s not really something you can answer. It’s about 4,000 different things and it’s about nothing at the same time…A lot of plays want you to have a good time or a cathartic experience, and a lot of plays spell it out for you and give you all the answers. With Beckett, there’s none of that—he’s just asking questions.”
Tuleja, Wall and Rose have been challenged trying to incorporate The Candidatos style into Endgame’s minimal script, while respecting the rigid rules associated with staging Beckett’s work. For instance, when MRM received the rights to produce Endgame, the lawyers representing Beckett’s estate (the author died in 1989) included a letter specifically detailing how nothing from the original material could be changed—no special effects; no changes in the sex of the characters or performers (“male actors shall play male roles”); and no “additions, omissions or alterations” of stage directions. The letter’s precision—a result, in part, of Beckett’s protest of JoAnne Akalaitis’ 1984 production of Endgame, which she set in a subway station as opposed to a barren underground shelter—leaves little room for Tuleja or the actors to add their own touches.
“There are certain rules you have to follow with Beckett, and you just have to trust he’s right about them. Like ‘Pause’,” Tuleja says, noting that the script calls for delays after—and sometimes within—almost every line of the play. “I mean, there’s one character who moves, one character who’s in a chair and two who spend the entire time in trash cans. For a director who specializes in physical theater, it sets a lot of limits. But, as we’ve worked through it, we’ve found that there’s a lot you can still do.”
Rose talks of measuring his gestures much more than he did while clowning in I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry. Wall explains how he can emphasize his movements within Beckett’s precise blocking, conveying what it’s been like to be cooped up in the shelter for so long. And both have focused on the dialogue, working to find the rhythm of certain exchanges and nailing them before the script requires they move on to the next tangential conversation. The result is a play that reads quickly, maintains an element of physicality—albeit in a different way—and keeps the same “grim or macabre tone” that suffused I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry, says Wall. Still, he and Rose admit the play is a bit of a risk for their burgeoning company.
“We wanted to present something that was identifiably of the aesthetic that we began to cultivate with I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry, but that hopefully demonstrated some range and offered something slightly different,” says Wall, who adds that The Candidatos plan to present their next original work in November. “But we’ve only done one show so far, so it’s hard to say what people will think. Will we lose people with this? I don’t know.”
Adds Rose: “We can only hope it’s a good match.”
The Candidatos and Montana Rep Missoula present Endgame Tuesday, April 11, through Saturday, April 15, and Tuesday, April 18, through Saturday, April 22, at 7:30 PM in the Schreiber Gym Annex on the UM campus. Tickets cost $10, or $8 for students, with $5 tickets for students on Wednesdays. Opening night is billed as “pay-what-you-can.” Call 243-4581.