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amuel Beckett’s play “Endgame,” now up at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O’Reilly, begins with a wordless spectacle. A man moves around the stage, drawing curtains back to reveal not the windows that the audience expects but one brick wall after another. There are two excruciatingly small openings in the brick, like portholes on a ship, which take a while—and a ladder—to pry open. It’s the kind of sight gag that can express the whole symbolic structure of a show: “Endgame” is a series of thwartings—thwarted connections, thwarted meanings, clipped-off attempts to tell a story. Every time you think a vista of clarity might be on the horizon, you slam into a new wall that obfuscates the view.

The curtain drawer’s name is Clov (Bill Irwin), and, like many of the characters strewn dismally through Beckett’s œuvre, he has a physical disability. His legs are bowed and unsteady, and he’s in obvious, constant pain. In order to open the small windows, he has to drag a ladder onstage. He’s expert at managing obstacles: he throws his legs over the top of the ladder with a workman’s precision. Irwin executes Clov’s motions with an almost surreal rhythm, full of pauses and habitual tics, squeezing something like style out of a daily challenge. Clov has obviously been here—wherever this dim, cluttered, gloomy, perhaps post-apocalyptic room is—for a long time. His repetitions have made him highly skilled, in his way, at his low tasks.

Clov works for Hamm (John Douglas Thompson), an imperious blind man who sits in a chair bolted to a wheeled platform—a kind of makeshift wheelchair. Hamm bosses Clov around incessantly, issuing contradictory orders at maximum volume, keeping him in perpetual transit, a purgatory of fetching and delivering, between an offstage kitchen and the chair, which Hamm insists be placed “bang in the center” of the room—that is, until, a breath later, he chides, “A little too far to the left.” He asks for a stuffed dog he calls a pet, then commands Clov to mount the ladder once more and report what he can see outside.

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One window, we learn, faces land, and the other faces the sea. They could be on an island, or near a coast, or—this fits the play’s mood best—at the ragged, wild edge of an abandoned continent, which is slowly succumbing to nature’s reclamation. When Clov sees someone through one of the windows, Hamm can barely believe it. They had a neighbor once—Clov makes sure to remind Hamm that he declined to lend her some oil for her lamp. “You know what she died of, Mother Pegg?” Clov asks reproachfully. “Of darkness.” Sometimes Hamm just wants to be pushed around the perimeter of the room.

We never learn why Clov and Hamm are here, or precisely why Clov continues, day after day, to obey a tyrant who can’t walk or see. Still less explicable is the fact that Hamm’s legless parents, Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and Nell (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), are in metal trash cans onstage. Hamm regards them contemptuously: he calls his father his “progenitor” at one point, and a “fornicator” later on. The one locus of potential sweetness resides in the relationship between the two old-timers. They try to kiss, but that’s thwarted, too: the space between their cans is a skosh too wide. They reminisce about a long-ago trip to Lake Como and tell each other stupid jokes they’ve already told, or heard, far too many times. Nell sighs at the thought of “yesterday,” which has almost as much allure for her as the old jaunt to Italy. The idea of a yesterday is a salve for the ceaseless present, a reminder that time does move, even if its motion—or, implicitly, life itself—means nothing, changes nothing, heals no wounds.

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Hamm sometimes tries to appeal to Clov’s sensitivities; he asks Clov to kiss him on the forehead, or to hold hands. But these entreaties feel like moves in a sick game whose ends are clear only to Hamm. He keeps asking if it’s time for him to take a painkiller. He keeps wondering when “it”—his ordeal in this awful room, or the play we’re all watching, or his life—will “end.”

“Endgame” was first staged in 1957, four years after “Waiting for Godot” premièred. But Beckett wrote “Endgame” first, and later on he cited the lesser-known work as his favorite of his plays. This new production, dismaying in its simplicity but surprising in how many laughs it finds amid the gray, makes it easy to agree with Beckett. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” Nell says. O’Reilly and his company make that true here. But the rest of Nell’s dictum is true, too: “And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh anymore.”

Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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