Now You Tell Me Life Is Meaningless?

Nimbus does right by Beckett; 15 Head paints over 'Oil on Canvas'

More than once during Nimbus's staging of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, I thought to myself, If this isn't the greatest play of the 20th century, then I'm a medium-sized diving duck such as the white-winged scoter. Now, I should point out two things: 1) I am no type of medium-sized diving duck, and 2) hyperbolic superlatives, though a total gas to indulge in, are all but meaningless, as is everything we say and do. The point is, this deep and funny production is both an excellent tribute to a colossal genius and as palpably alive as a horny octopus, which, short of gratis backrubs from ushers, is all one should ask a production of a canonized classic to be.

In case you're hazy on which weird Beckett play Endgame is, it's the post-apocalypse one in which a blind, crippled "king" named Hamm bosses around his weary adopted son and pawn Clov. This lonely servant stays put out of habit and because the world outside offers him little else, which is how all workers feel, especially on rainy days and Mondays and in books by bearded German intellectuals. Occasionally the pair suffers the kvetching and nostalgia of Hamm's legless parents, who emerge turtlelike from the separate ash bins where they reside, as apparently was the custom back in continental Europe during the late 1950s.

This apocalypse's fashions are all about toques, shades, and dressing gowns: Jeff Myhre in 'Endgame'
This apocalypse's fashions are all about toques, shades, and dressing gowns: Jeff Myhre in 'Endgame'

Beckett's script calls for Hamm to wear dark glasses. Jeff Myhre compensates for this limitation with an imposing arsenal of torso tilts, brow furrows, and a mouth that occasionally opens in the classic "O" of surprise. His voice is similarly powerful, imperious like funny-pages tough-love guru Mr. Dithers, yet desperate as a dying animal. Terry Flynn's wise, ridiculous, unkempt Clov combines some of the best qualities of Socrates with Bela Lugosi's Ygor.

Endgame was written in 1957 and its weltschmerz sprang in part from nuclear anxiety and the scars of the world wars. It's too limiting, however, to call this a social-commentary play, or an intricate chess metaphor, or a marvel of formal invention. It's all of that, yes. But above all, and at the risk of sounding all wheezy and tweed-coated, Endgame is a rangy, profound expression of what it means to be alive and what it means to be almost dead. There's optimism here, too, in the beauty of every multivalent line, and in this production's generous, lived-in performances. It's a good world that gives us that.

 

15 Head'sOil on Canvas, a portrait of Italian painter-sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, was a standing-room-only hit at last year's Fringe. The show, conceived by Mary Anna Culligan and scripted by John Middleton, has been significantly reworked for this remount, which generally shifts its focus from big aesthetic questions (What is art?) to broader existential ones (Why art?). The new staging also gives more time to its two principal women, Modigliani's lover Beatrice (Maesie Speer) and his wife Jeanne (Angela Harold), who have a couple of ironically dispassionate teatime chats about suicide and other bum-out stuff. Plus, 15 Head's outgoing artistic director Joe Stanley has expanded the bioplay's set, most impressively with a re-creation of the base of the Eiffel Tower, a large-scale wooden model that, against the odds, is both grand and unobtrusive.

I've seen both runs of Oil on Canvas and have twice been impressed and entertained in a distant sort of way. Craig Michael's hangdog portrayal of the libertine and ill-starred artist for the most part manages to avoid suffering genius/nutcase clichés. And there are fine scenes here, such as the aforementioned tea chats and a lovely moment in which Modigliani gives Beatrice a new dress by painting her old one. But despite Oil's interest in the most basic human struggles, it feels emotionally aloof. I for one miss Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," which helped give the earlier staging a moving close, and conveyed some--what might one say?--lust for life, something I fear this admirable show could use more of.

 
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