Voices in the Rubble/Endgame – Rules are Made Up, Points Don’t Matter
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
There is a risk inherent in seeing a piece of theater you really love, isn’t there? I get edgy going to a Samuel Beckett in a way that I don’t when attending say, Suessical (which, nope, no thank you, never, it’s my blog, can’t make me). I am hopelessly devoted to absurdist theater, and no, I’m not just talking about CNN. The style is delicious, with this alienating, “fuck you if you’re too stupid to think” quality about it that speaks to me. What I’m getting at is that I’m hard on this type of work, because it’s my heartsong, so you need to trust me when I say that Rapid Lemon’s production of Voices in the Rubble/Endgame is one of the best I’ve seen in this genre, ever. This time, the risk pays off, and seeing something I love done this well? It’s a fucking relief. I felt, coming out of Motorhouse, like I could breathe again. That’s how good it is.
Darren Donohue’s Voices in the Rubble is a sort of pop-absurd, hopeful (in it’s way, at least as compared to…later) little piece that bounces along really quite agreeably. If you’re expecting a plot, GTFO, and try to Google before you fucking come to something. Donohue is most interested in disrupting the expectations of the audience when it comes to familial relationships, taking Lucy and Ricky (Avril and Tony) and making them fuck on the dining room table, or maybe fuck the dog on the dining room table, you know how it go. Director Lance Bankerd is aware that the play has some depressing thoughts about marriage and stability, but his perspective seems to be that those are just part of the human condition. I like that. It would have been easy to take this too deathly serious, go totally outer-space dark, but I don’t think that’d have served, and I don’t think the script really calls for it. Dononhue doesn’t cut too close or bite too deep, and the whole thing could stand to be shaped up, trimmed a little bit, but it made me grin, and it’s funny.
What’s really great here is that we start to see the cast limber up and man, are they the fire. Lee Conderacci stands out most to me in the first hour (she said to me after that, in her view, Avril is about “performing femininity” and YES, YES), her beautiful face stretches like a Gumby character. There’s one part where she cries in this hideously insane way that seems like a three year-old looking for comfort crossed with a painting in a carnival haunted house attraction, that somehow becomes the center of the entire piece. Zack Jackson has more to do a little later (and is stunning) but his Tony is delightfully exasperated, more upset that Avil might be hiding a gentleman than that she may have killed one, you know, men could stand to listen a little closer. Matthew Lindsay Payne pops out in what is perhaps the worst shirt I have ever seen, and he’s absolutely ridiculous, all Id and need. And Lance Bankerd shows a distressing familiarity throughout the entire night with bonding to inanimate objects, he makes a splash in a small part near the end.
Much, much ink has been spilled on the topic of Samuel Beckett and his masterpiece, Endgame, and I really can’t add all that much to the millions of words of analysis already out there, so let just tell you what I love about it. Even in this terrifying, bleak, empty world of Beckett’s post-apocalyptic imagination, this last chance, this end game, his characters still stubbornly insist on having needs. Telling stories. Giving themselves meaning. Beckett can humiliate them all he wants, cut of their legs, make them cringing servants, blind them, put them in the literal trash. Doesn’t matter. They still say, “I’m here. And that means something!” Even when it doesn’t, clearly! Even when nothing means anything! And so, if nothing means anything any more, that means it probably never did, right? But aren’t people cute?
Bankerd hits all the notes right, at least for me, and the contrast with Rubble just goes even further to center the genius of Beckett. The rhythms (“We get along”) are as important as the words, maybe more so, and we all know how Beckett insists on specificity (Samuel Beckett was an absurdist completely devoid of the flexibility you’d think would be part and parcel of his work. He’s like, “Uh, you’ll take what I mean and if you interpret my words the way I didn’t intend, may you BURN in HELL.” And he was not playing around. In 1984, JoAnne Akalaitis directed Endgame at ART and tried to get fancy and Beckett went NUTS. The whole incident almost came to court action that wasn’t settled until they included this note in the program: “Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.”) Bankerd manages to make a play that is absolutely true to the Vision and still stays fresh.
One of the things that I really appreciate about this version is that Bankerd goes easy on the relationships, particularly between Hamm (Zack Jackson) the patriarch, as it were, and Clov (Matthew Lindsay Payne) his boy. Too many productions press, they try to crystallize the ambiguity in this bond one way or the other; they’re lovers, brothers, father and son, father and adopted son. We don’t need those kinds of definitions, and pushing too hard breaks it. They are all of those things, and more, and none of them. Jackson is pitch-perfect as Hamm, he avoids even the slightest whiff of pity, which is crucial. Hamm is a deposed king, a Trash Lord, he’s imperious and petulant, but ALWAYS bitterly controlled. And, dear God, Payne as Clov (the “nail” to the “hammer”). I’ve seen Payne’s work be good, very good, before, and this is the best by far. This is a fascinating study of a human that is also a whipped, starving, snarling dog. His physical vocabulary to express desperation seems to grow right in front of your eyes. Conderacci appears again as Nell, to my mind the darkest character in either play, and Bankerd as her counterpart, Nagg. These two build centuries of relationships in two minutes, the implications of their familiarity get more harrowing the more you think about it.
The technical elements beautifully compliment both works, the shift towards a grayer, darker landscape (set design by Sebastian Sears, lighting design by Allan Sean Weeks) during the intermission (with some gorgeous sound elements from Patrick McMinn) is effective. Costume design by Deana Fisher Brill is a highlight, from the cheerful coral dress on Conderacci for Rubble to the horribly loud galoshes on Payne in the second half, Brill intuits exactly what’s needed and stops there. Makeup is far too heavy in both, but it’s all part of the set-up, with the actors bringing out a table during intermission and doing it largely themselves, with an assist from the stage hands. This feels disappointingly precious, and is the only part of the show that tries to be too clever. It doesn’t need it.
BOTTOM LINE: If you are a fan of absurdist theater, you need to get the fucking lead out and get over to Voices in the Rubble/Endgame. If you are NOT a fan of absurdist theater, that goes double. Look, I realize you might have been burned by some hideously awful Intro to Theater 101 nonsense when it comes to shit like this, and this is not that. This is a nuanced, wonderful, funny, beautifully directed, blazingly acted journey down the rabbit hole to hell. This is a chance to sit in a chair and think about things, and isn’t that so, so, worth it? Don’t you want to think? Don’t you want to explore? Don’t you want to care?
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