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SOME HAMM-FISTED HUMOR

Review

Endgame

Rating: *** 1/2

Dark comic allegory by Samuel Beckett.

Directed by John Dalingwater.

Through Sept. 8 in Gypsy Theatre, 465 Central Ave., Fort Erie, Ont., (905) 871-4407.

Alan Schneider, a film and stage director of some repute, also made a career of producing the plays of absurdist theater patron saint Samuel Beckett. "Beckett's words," he once said, "stay in your bones."

Indeed they do. Repetitive mantras, wordless pleas, disembodied voices -- all exploring what the Irish-born disciple of James Joyce called "the life of the mind" -- can stay with the onlooker, reader or listener for days . . . even longer if allowed.

Meaning? That's something else again. Making sense of Beckett's dark and comic allegories, lack of action in his plays, unending pessimism, silences, sentence fragments, attractive use of farce and gallows humor, both leading to smiles at surprising moments, usually puzzles, sending one out into the night changed somehow but muttering, "I don't get it."

We are not alone in this. Beckett himself, when asked about themes and utterances in his revolutionary play "Waiting for Godot" -- who was Godot and why should anyone wait for him? -- replied, "If I knew, I would have said so." Is it any wonder that keys to understanding Samuel Beckett are difficult to discover?

Fort Erie's Gypsy Theatre, having experimented with Harold Pinter and Jean-Paul Sartre in recent months, has just opened Beckett's second play, "Endgame," a work the London Times once called "distraught."

And for good reason. Hamm, old, paralytic, pain-filled, blind and wheelchair-bound, occupies center stage and barks orders to a shuffling Clov, equally aged and infirmed but at least a mobile man Friday. Hamm and Clov have long been together, Clov apparently left in Hamm's care as an infant. What feeling remains between the two surfaces on occasion: "Ah, great fun, we had, the two of us, great fun," remembers Hamm. He quickly adds, "And then we got into the way of it."

There are two windows in Hamm's house, apparently representing the earth and the sea after some catastrophe, possibly nuclear devastation. Clov peers outside periodically to see if anything has changed.

Two others occupy the house: Nagg and Nell, Hamm's legless parents who are living out their days in separate trash cans. Hamm berates them, feeds them sparingly, punishing them for not answering his cries when he was a baby and afraid of the dark. As grotesque as they are, Nagg and Nell's brief and caring exchanges let some light into the room.

Hamm waits for the end: "Something is taking its course," he says. Clov threatens to leave. Nagg and Nell are silent. Bone-sticking stuff.

John Dalingwater and Bernadette Feeney, co-founders of Gypsy Theatre founders, promised a faithful and verbatim "Endgame" to the Beckett estate, and they have done so for the most part. Dalingwater, who directs, designed the set and also plays Hamm, has created a less mournful cadence and overall, less anguish. Dalingwater's Hamm, though trigger-tempered, is also cavalier and very affected. Those traits slightly take the edge off the parade of human weaknesses, frustrations, suffering and collective helplessness that Beckett wants recognized and felt.

Dalingwater excels, though, in this dire tour de force, as does Simon Wright, as the stressed Clov. Richard Vaillancourt has a nice turn as Nagg, his scenes with Hamm full of fire. Bonita Turnbull, as Nell, completes the cast.

Gypsy Theatre's "Endgame" is a laudable production in many ways and even though it takes much sorting out, perversely intriguing.

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