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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The End of the World

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Fourpeople, two ash bins and a toy dog may not seem like much come the end of time, but these components have propelled Samuel Beckett’s Endgame to more than 50 years of critical praise. Starting next weekend, the Stiemke Theater brings Endgame back to Milwaukee.

When the sheet is pulled off Mark Corkins on March 21, it will be his second time in the role of the blind, sickly Hamm. Years ago, Corkins played Hamm in the tiny confines of the UW-Milwaukee Studio Theatre. With its larger stage, the Milwaukee Rep has a much bigger canvas to work with. On the flip side, however, the Rep will face difficulty in bringing the immediacy of the characters’ emotional realities to one of the largest studio theaters in the county.

As seen before at UWM, the perpetually restless decay of Hamm’s sickness breathes a fascinating counterpoint through Corkins’ powerful, deeply resonant voice. Lee Ernst will fill the role of Clov, the reluctant servant who comes ever closer to leaving the dying Hamm. Without Clov’s aid, Hamm would be left helpless, thus unraveling the tension that holds the play together.

Ernst is an excellent choice for the role, an actor who can bring out the inner strength in overwhelming weakness with a deftness that few others can muster. While Corkins and Ernst haven’t spent the kind of interminable time together that their characters have, both have been members of the Rep resident acting company for a long time. The years of professional experience shared by these two actors inform the years of personal experience shared by their two characters.

Torrey Hanson plays Hamm’s father, Nagg, who periodically pops out of one of the ash bins. Nagg adds depth to the plight of Hamm with a monologue, a botched joke and other interactions. Hanson has a charming stage presence that should prove pleasantly incongruous with a character who has previously been played as a pathetic, bitter old man.

From the other ash bin, Laura Gordon plays Nagg’s wife, Nell. Gordon’s gift for pulling humor from between the lines of a script should balance out the cast quite well. Beckett’s play won’t appeal to everyone, of course. It is slow and repetitious. Instead of traditional theater, it’s more like a concert.

Endgame is a four-part chamber symphony with no written melody. It is an extended poem for four with a few stage directions thrown in for dramatic effect. And the Rep has assembled some of the most seasoned practitioners of the spoken word to invite audiences, however briefly, to the end of the world.