Much like a nettle, Samuel Beckett's absurdist plays must be firmly grasped or else they can sting the unwary interpreter.
In the current production of Beckett's "Endgame" at A Noise Within, director Geoff Elliott takes a somewhat gingerly purchase on his challenging material. Certainly, Elliott's staging is thoughtful, polished and rigorous, thoroughly professional in every particular, as is to be expected from this cutting-edge company. However, Elliott's near-reverential staging lacks the bold muscularity crucial in bringing Beckett's stinging humor to the fore.
In addition to directing, Elliott, founder and co-producing artistic director of the company, does double duty in the pivotal role of Hamm, a blind, crippled tyrant who holds sway over this possibly post-apocalyptic milieu, well-realized in Jeanine A. Ringer's starkly filthy set and Karyn D. Lawrence's bone-chillingly wintry lighting.
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Hamm is the unequivocal master of this squalid realm, tended to by his resentful but obedient acolyte, Clov (mostly excellent Jeremy Rabb, whose soporific shuffling, while arguably true to Beckett's intentions, proves a drag on the show). At intervals, Hamm's legless father, Nagg (Mitchell Edmonds), and his also legless wife, Nell (Jill Hill), pop out of rusty barrels that look as if they've been salvaged from a toxic waste dump.
The actors are all seasoned veterans who polish their portrayals to a high gloss. Edmonds, in particular, interjects a richly humanistic tone to this otherwise somewhat dryly academic exercise.
For Beckett purists, this production may richly satisfy. Certainly, Beckett himself, who was famously protective of his works, from text to stage directions, would probably give it a hearty seal of approval. Yet those who think it's time to tweak the nose of that elusive master may find this "Endgame" more respectful than rousing.
"Endgame," A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Ends Nov. 23. Tickets from $34. For performance schedule, call (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1 or go to www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.