L.A. WEEKLY (GO!)
A successful staging of Samuel Beckett's
absurdist classic requires a director who can mine the play's comic and lyrical
elements, and effectively meld them with the author's relentlessly harsh vision.
Here, director Paul Plunkett does just that, aided by an excellent cast which
maintains that crucial balance throughout. Endgame is about four pitiful
characters trapped in a dismal room as the outside world collapses in decay and
sterility. Unlike the forlorn tramps in Waiting for Godot, there is no
expectation of relief or purpose, just the slow passage of time ending in an
inevitable, painful demise. Confined in a pair of battered, industrial
containers, the ghoulish-looking Nagg and Nell (Barry Ford and the striking
Kathy Bell Denton) emerge sporadically to break the tedium of the central
"action," which unfolds on a rickety caricature of a throne. There, the blind,
crippled Hamm (Leon Russom) is unable to move and has his needs tended to by the
perpetually besieged Clov (David Fraioli), in a bizarre, ongoing ritual of
servitude. When, toward the end, Hamm asks about his painkiller, and is told by
Clov that there isn't any more, we know that, for this outing anyway, the laughs
are balm enough. As effective as Plunkett's direction is, this fine revival
really soars on the wings of the cast's terrific performances.
--Lovell Estell III
© 2011 L.A. Weekly
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BACKSTAGE (CRITIC'S PICK!)
How presciently timed is this production of
Samuel Beckett's play, which seems to be about a cataclysmic end of the world?
We are watching it days after one country seems to be burning up, mere hours
after another has become a battleground of nations. But by the time the play was
first produced, in 1957, the world had already seen its share of man-made
cataclysms; more would follow. The play, it seems, is perpetually prescient.
Paul Plunkett directs it with an eye on its comedy - for, as Beckett says,
nothing is funnier than unhappiness. So with our first glimpse of Clov, the
caretaker character, we might assume he wears clown makeup of white face with
reddened cheeks. Eventually we realize his skin must have been burned to ash.
Clov is played with devotion and frustration, plus twitchy hyperactivity and a
deep laugh, by David Fraioli. Though Clov is nearly too stiff to walk, at least
he can walk, and see, says his master and patient, Hamm, who is blind and in a
chair that must be wheeled. Leon Russom gives Hamm years of being in command but
new cracks of frailty and fear, and Fraioli and Russom feel their characters'
love for each other despite the bickering and perpetual irritations. As the two
old folks living in the ashbins, Barry Ford makes a sweet, patient Nagg, while
Kathy Bell Denton is a whimsical, sentimental Nell. This couple wears sweetly
old-fashioned nightdresses that bespeak more-genteel times - as does Denton's
wistful, remindful "Ah, yesterday."
The scene is lit completely from above through a white fabric - seemingly dotted
with fallen leaves - creating a bizarrely paradoxical sense of reality and
unreality, sunlight and artificial light (production design by Tifanie McQueen,
lighting by Matt Richter).
At the top of the play, audience members have been ushered from the lobby
through a short, completely dark passageway and into the theater, which is
shaded in deep red lighting and awash in the sounds of blood rushing. If only we
could think of this endgame as a fresh start, a birth or rebirth, the messages
the production sends us might not seem so chilling.
© 2011 BackStage
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This is a must-see for those aficionados of the
Theatre of the Absurd. Sacred Fools presents us with a terrific production of
what Samuel Becket called his favorite play. The title, Endgame, refers
to terminology used in the game of chess when the end is known, and we trudge,
fait accompli, to the final moment. The four characters on stage are the
last persons on earth and are forced to experience a post-apocalyptic reality.
With ideas and worldviews similar to Camu and Sartre, many see Samuel Becket as
an Existentialist; he rejected this label. However, he did want the audience not
to seek meaning or order in his play, but to allow it to wash over them, sensing
separateness, loss, poverty, alienation, and the on-going tedious inanity of
humanity. Some of the dialogue is absolutely marvelous: One character asks, “Do
you believe in the life to come?” Another answers, “Mine was always that.”
Another example: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” The play is filled with
pithy brilliant and absurd remarks and insights, often incredibly funny.
As the audience is seated, the sound of a rumbling synthesizer creates the mood
of chaos and a threatening, pervasive subconscious. No one was listed in the
program as sound designer, so I can only assume that Tifanie McQueen (production
designer) is to be thanked. The set (again without specific credit) was simple
in its grunginess and effectively grotesque.
All the actors are quite fine: Leon Russom (Hamm) has power and authority; the
essence of his character is clear. His best moments are when he is real, and, as
the play progresses in its run, I hope he strives more and more for simplicity
and reality. David Fraioli has a surefire role; believable and funny, using
intense physicality, he portrays the pathetic and humorous Clov. However, his
last speech “From the heart” was too fast and too soft and not heard properly.
Barry Ford (Nagg) is perfect for his part. If only he would open his eyes and
roll back the rim of his hat, he would be even more endearing and interesting.
Kathy Bell Denton (Nell) is utterly delightful. She brings an elegance and charm
to her character that contrasts with the dreary men and is refreshing and
Director Paul Plunkett has created a lively and dramatic presentation of a great
but difficult play. Almost every word was heard. Characterizations were clear
and precise. There was nothing heavy-handed or labored in the action or
relationships. In a play about immobility and the eradication of time and
progressive action, Mr. Plunkett manages to keep us attentive and eager
© 2011 Stage Happenings
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An Endgame for the Endtimes
The Theatre of the Absurd isn’t my cup of tea –
which is exactly why I made it a point to see Sacred Fools’ new production of
Samuel Beckett’s 1957 Endgame. Theatre can be an escapist refuge from the
sturm und drang of our daily lives, or it can take us out of our comfort zones
and transport us to other realms of thought and emotion, to different modes of
being. So, encouraged by the fact that Sacred Fools is a quirky company that
presents offbeat plays, I decided to check Mr. Beckett out and to give absurdity
a chance. (In the spirit of the absurd, this production by an Irish playwright
might be Sacred Fools’ profane St. Patrick’s Day gift to L.A. theatre.)
What passes for a plot basically consists of a quartet of characters trapped in
a household who gleefully pick one another apart. Hamm is hamstrung by being
blind and wheelchair-bound. He’s cared for by the crippled Clov (David Fraioli),
who is in thrall to Hamm (Leon Russom) due to economic circumstances that give
the pig Hamm the upper hand over his caregiver. (Beckett’s knowing wink at
Proletarian Theatre, perchance?) Hamm may be unable to stand up, but poor Clov
can’t sit down.
The foursome is rounded out by Hamm’s parents, Nagg (veteran actor Barry Ford)
and Nell (Kathy Bell Denton, who – having appeared in Eugene Ionesco’s The
Killing Game – is no stranger to the Theatre of the Absurd) who reside
inside of garbage cans in Hamm’s home. Depending on your point of view, this is
either inexplicable or full of symbolic meaning about the troubled relationship
between parents and children.
Suffice it to say that the point of this (mercifully) one-act existentialist
play is that life is pointless and devoid of meaning. Sisyphus may eternally
roll that boulder up the hill, but it will inevitably come tumbling down.
There’s no hope for the human condition; all is doom and gloom. Remarking upon
Nagg’s weeping, Hamm observes: “Then he’s living.”
I’ve always despised this despairing, impotent existential viewpoint, and prefer
the Battleship Potemkin’s philosophy that humans can change their world
for the better. I was surprised to learn from last November’s Sherry Theatre
bioplay Lucia Mad (about James Joyce and his daughter, with Robert Ross
as Beckett) that the Irish bard had been a member of the French resistance
during WWII — judging by Beckett’s bleak view of human nature, one would think
that the Nazis had won the war. (Beckett typically derided his wartime
derring-do as “boy scout stuff.”)
However, having said this, the fact of the matter is that the ensemble cast, as
directed by Paul Plunkett, delivers flawless performances. It seems to me that
for the most part these roles require the thespians to play their parts with
great external technique, as opposed to relying on some sort of inner
Stanislavsky-like Method confabulating emotions conjured up by memory traces,
and so on. And the actors dish up their caricatured characters with relish,
buttressed by the tools of their trade – make-up, costumes, etc.
Beckett is an Irishman with the gift of absurdist gab, and his acerbic dialogue
is crisp, portentous and edgy. Russom — who was Emmy-nominated for the 1991 TVM
Long Road Home and more recently appeared in the Coen Brothers’ True
Grit remake – cooks his Hamm with sadistic wit. To tell you the truth,
despite Endgame’s grim, hopeless plot, I found myself laughing quite a bit,
along with much of the audience in the half-full house. Perhaps, as Nell notes:
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Production designer Tifanie McQueen and master carpenter David Knutson’s set
transforms Sacred Fools’ stage space, which I’ve seen at about five other plays,
providing an organic sense of confinement. Because Endgame is, after all,
about imprisonment, about that point in the chess game when the outcome seems
like a foregone, inescapable conclusion. As Jean-Paul Sartre’s character in
another existential masterpiece, No Exit, commented: “Hell is other people.”
As earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, nuclear radiation, mass uprisings and
endless, ever-expanding wars engulf our beleaguered planet Beckett’s Endgame is
a timely play for the endtimes we seem to now be entering. To paraphrase
Sherlock Holmes, who was spoofed last year in Sacred Fools’ delightful Watson:
The endgame is afoot!
© 2011 Hollywood
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Samuel Beckett Done Right
An essential key to mastering the acting craft is
commitment to one’s character. Lesser actors, in roles designed not to
overstrain their “talent”, mostly TV dramas, can “fudge” this facility and its
absence will pass unnoticed by all but the most discerning eye. But an actor
faces no greater demands on his talents than those the theater can impose. It
can be argued, that it is the actor’s intelligence and commitment which the
works of Shakespeare and Anton Chekov are dependent on for success. With the
works of Samuel Beckett, however, one could contend it is only by the depth of
an actor’s acute commitment, that such works can have existence.
Endgame is an impossible pandemonium of absurd melodrama and Vaudevillian
tragedy, of chess metaphors and Biblical asides, of intratextual and
intertextual referencing, a parable of puns, pain and poetry where the clownish
antics seems to echo with the anguish of Job.
An audience is only able to enter into Beckett’s world thru the actor’s embrace
of it, their passage into the play’s reality only assured when the performance
of a skilled actor provides the portal. The able cast in director Paul Plunkett
superb production of Endgame now at the Sacred Fools Theatre not only
provides the audience with that portal, but they lay out the red carpet.
Plunkett prepares the audience for that crossing from the moment people step
into the theater. On the hour exactly he snaps shut his trap. There will be
neither intermission nor late seating. Blackness, then illumination. On stage a
motionless form sits enthroned beneath sheets like shrouds. A second figure,
thin with ankles raw and bloody, trembles by the only doorway, his eyes darting
about with a feral restlessness. We are in the “corpsed” world of Hamm and Clov.
This is a near perfect production of the work one of the greatest modern
playwrights acknowledged as his most personally satisfying.
Director Paul Plunkett has presented theater as it should be. The cast is
outstanding. So outstanding one suspects coming by them involved Plunkett
signing a contract in blood while the stench of sulfur wafted about him. Leon
Russon’s Hamm is the essence of the dying lion. As Clov, David Fraioli is
Munch’s “The Scream” made flesh. His unnatural twisting movements are those of a
marionette whose strings are tangled.
Less capable directors often misinterpret the squabbling between Hamm and Clov
as verbal carpet bombing in some battle to the death, and so saturate their
exchanges with thundering hatred. Plunkett avoided this misstep, recognizing
that their discord is not warfare but a ritual of verbal dismantlement.
Hamm: You don’t love me.
Hamm: You loved me once.
Hamm: I’ve made you suffer too much. Haven’t I?
Clov: It’s not that.
Hamm: (shocked) I’ve haven’t made you suffer too much?
Hamm: (relieved) Ah you gave me a fright!
Kathy Bell Denton’s Nell is perfectly paired with
Barry Ford’s Nagg as Hamm’s parents living out their days in a set of ash cans.
In Denton, Ford, Fraioli and Russon one sees the alliance between actors and
material at its best.
Tifanie McQueen the production designer and Matt Richter the lighting designer
have devised a set that veils the usual paraphernalia which catching sight of
would remind one they are in a playhouse. We see only a grim grey interior
flawless in its starkness. Taken all together Paul Plunkett and the Sacred Fools
Company have mounted the most laudable staging of a Beckett play to be seen in
Los Angeles for years.
But what’s it all about? Beckett himself took pains never to explain his works.
Some take Endgame at the face value of its title, identifying the characters
with chess pieces. In Clov’s patterned movements they see the knight, Nagg and
Nell as two opposing pawns and Hamm, of course, as the harried king. But what
Beckett affirms in Endgame with a greater clarity than any writer before
or since, is the fundamental trait which defines what it means to be human. That
no matter where we find ourselves, man exists in his dependency on man. That no
matter where, no matter with whom, we must form relationships.
In a dead, decaying world, within a structure that is both shelter and tomb,
blind, crippled and dictatorial Hamm is confined with his lame, intractable
lackey Clov. We watch them belittle, degrade and denounce one another. Yet
beneath their abuse you sense their compassion for the pain of the other is
Plunkett’s direction is exceptional from start to finish, and he ends the piece
as he began, by plunging us into blackness. And for that brief moment before the
house lights flare up to usher our departure, Hamm’s words resonate within us:
“You cried for night; it comes – It falls; now cry in darkness.”
© 2011 Working Author
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L.A. STAGE TIMES (Feature Article)
Leon Russom and Barry Ford Wrestle Beckett’s
With careers whose sum equals almost a century of
experience, Leon Russom and Barry Ford believe getting older does not mean less
opportunity. In fact, both actors believe age and experience are invaluable
tools as they take on one of the most difficult plays of their careers.
Sitting in the quaint dressing room at Sacred Fools, the veterans prepare for a
tech run of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, directed by Paul Plunkett.
“I want to go on a vacation and go back to Shakespeare,” says Russom, who plays
Hamm, the ironically powerless and blind ruler of a household of four people in
a world nearing the end.
Russom, 70, is probably best known for his roles in the Coen brothers’ films The
Big Lebowski and, most recently, True Grit; however his career is filled with a
rich blend of over 90 television episodes and films, and a plethora of
theatrical performances on both coasts and abroad.
Ford, 78, who has extensive experience performing abroad and in New York,
portrays Nag, Hamm’s elderly father who resides in a dustbin next to his
similarly trapped wife, asking for food and recounting the same story day after
day. He agrees that Shakespeare would indeed be a “relief” at this point in
Yet both men firmly agree they have waited their entire careers to be able to
wrestle with a play like Endgame.
Russom grew up in Arkansas as an orphan moving from one family member to
another. He graduated high school at the age of 15 and attended Southwestern
(now Rhodes College) in Memphis, where he quite literally stumbled upon acting
while sitting out a football season with a broken ankle. During this time he was
asked to play Biff in the school’s production of Death of a Salesman and, after
an unexpectedly stellar performance, was encouraged to join the Memphis Front
Three years and 38 productions later, he left to train at the London Drama
Centre where he acted in well-known pieces including The Miser, The Little
Foxes, Macbeth, Hay Fever and Waiting for Godot. “The last time I did Beckett
was 51 years ago when I played Lucky” in Godot, says Russom with a chuckle.
In between his two Beckett productions Russom tackled Broadway, Off-Broadway,
soap opera land, regional theater, film and television such as Bones, Boston
Legal, JAG, The West Wing and NYPD Blue, to name a few.
Despite this wide spectrum of work over a long time, Russom believes Endgame is
one of the most difficult pieces he has ever done. “In a very real sense Beckett
writes people’s consciousnesses and puts it out there,” he says. “It’s like he
turns you inside out and even when you’ve ‘got it,’ you feel like you’re taking
your SATs on a unicycle on a tight rope.”
Russom attributes this level of difficulty to Beckett’s incredible attention to
detail within his scripts. From the particular elements of the set to the pauses
he writes into each scene, every choice is deliberate and full of underlying
“The play hinges on every breath you take and you cannot have a wrong thought or
paraphrase because that will throw off the rhythm of the entire show,” says
Beckett’s purposely false “theatrical bombs” make actors believe they are dying
inside, Russom says, making every moment in the play a test.
Russom’s response to this?
Some of Beckett’s own words: “Try. Fail. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”
He says, “It is thrilling to take on something that you don’t know whether or
not you can pull off. I often think, ‘Is this going to kill me?’”
In this cycle of great effort and uncertain success, Russom believes there are
two things seeing him through: his own experience and the rest of the cast.
As he grows older, Russom wants to fit in as much performing as possible and
take on parts that challenge him. In his role of Hamm, Russom is not only blind
onstage with completely blacked-out glasses but also physically immobile. He
remains in a chair for the entire duration of the show with little movement and
many long monologues.
For any actor these limitations would present difficulties, but this role would
be nearly impossible for a novice. “Beckett calls on everything you know. The
more you know, the more there is to call on, which is imperative in this show,”
Along with his garnered wisdom, Russom’s fellow actors have been a great source
of support and creative inspiration. “David [Fraioli] who plays Clov, my
counterpart, is a youngster half my age but he has been wonderful to work with,
absolutely no friction between us whatsoever,” says Russom. “And Kathy [Bell
Denton] who plays my mother Nell, her work is heartbreaking and lovely.”
As Russom speaks of the fourth and final cast member he breaks into a huge
smile. “And Barry, he is about eight years older than me but I am truly thrilled
to watch a man his age attack things like he does,” says Russom. “It is really
nice to know I can do that also eight years from now.”
With Ford the feeling is completely mutual. “It has been a dream to work with
Leon. He is a hard worker with no Hollywood star business, even though he has
probably done the most high-profile work recently in True Grit.”
Coming from Ford, this is a real compliment. Truly an old hand, Ford has been in
the business for 62 years, and counting.
Born in Oakland, CA, Ford began his acting career in high school as the school’s
“Frankie,” singing along with his high school band at graduation.
During college, he worked in Northern California with different groups including
Sacramento Music Circus and the Actors Workshop in San Francisco.
In the ’60s Ford took his talent overseas as a singer, actor and dancer in
Paris. His performances resulted in a profile in a French newspaper describing
him as an “American in Paris.”
“I lived in France at a time when Ionesco and Beckett were still alive,” says
Ford. “And I am an actor with a background in a lot of great plays like
Shakespeare, but there is nothing like this show.”
Ford recalls his first encounter with Beckett in a production of Waiting for Godot abroad. “I was completely bowled over, I absolutely loved it,” says Ford.
Now many years later, after returning to New York and Los Angeles for work on
Broadway and in TV and film, Ford maintains this respect and love for Beckett’s
work. “Nag is a small jewel of a part, like a diamond, and I am having a
wonderful time even if I am sitting in a dustbin the entire time.”
Ford believes Endgame is so effective because of the nuanced, yet very strong
statements in the play. “You know by keeping Hamm’s parents in a dustbin Beckett
makes a really strong statement about the way we treat elders and what the end
of life means,” he says.
Having to embody this message in a dustbin for over an hour has been one of the
most challenging aspects of the character, but Ford also believes it has offered
him levels of exploration as an actor.
“Oh sure, Beckett has some curious immobility in his plays, but they are really
key to the story,” says Ford. “And getting adjusted to the contained
environment, sitting there waiting for your cue can be tricky, but I wanted to
do this part so badly, it is a compliment to have even been cast and now to be
able to explore new colors as an actor. That’s what the greats do.”
Ford explores these new colors through the gifts he personally brings as an
actor — his vocal quality and knowledge of languages. “My mother was American
and my father British, so people never really know where I am from; my accent is
not quite British but not quite American,” says Ford.
He is also fluent in Spanish and French, has a knack for pronouncing German and
knows what he calls “a smattering” of six other languages. He uses accents
derived from these languages to inform the history and life story of Nag without
messing with Beckett’s original script.
Ford credits director Paul Plunkett for encouraging his use of accents and being
a source of constant support. “He is a wonderful director with a lot of detail
in his work. He is someone great for actors because he is sensitive and believes
you can do it, which makes all the difference.”
Although performing Endgame is a personal victory for Ford and Russom, each say
the experience only encourages them to do more work like this in the future.
“The only reason I am an actor is because I am in love with beauty like any
artist; I never expected I would be able to do Endgame, but here I am, you never
know,” says Russom.
“It’s true, if I keep a positive attitude and work hard, something wonderful
that I haven’t even dreamed of, I mean look at me now,” says Ford.
And those are some words to live by.
© 2011 L.A. Stage Alliance
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