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Still in the Endgame

Alvin Epstein returns to the world of Samuel Beckett at BAM.

By New York City
John Turturro, Max Casella, Elaine Stritch, and Alvin Epsteinin Endgame
(© Nick Heavican)
John Turturro, Max Casella, Elaine Stritch, and Alvin Epstein
in Endgame
(© Nick Heavican)
Alvin Epstein has done just about everything you can do in theater. He has appeared opposite Orson Welles, Marcel Marceau, and Sting; served as artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre; co-founded Yale Repertory and A.R.T; and even played King Lear at the age of 81.

But one of Epstein's most enduring legacies is as the foremost American interpreter of the work of Samuel Beckett, having originated the role of Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot and the role of Clov in Endgame. Now he's returning to Beckett in BAM's new production of Endgame, opposite John Turturro, Max Casella, and Elaine Stritch, portraying the role of Nagg -- which he first played three years ago at the Irish Repertory Theatre. TheaterMania recently spoke with Epstein during rehearsals about his work with Beckett.

THEATERMANIA: How does it feel to be back in the trash can?
ALVIN EPSTEIN: I felt after I had finished the last production at Irish Rep that I had played all the male parts in the play. So the only part left for me was Nell. And I thought, well, when you get to be a certain age, you get to look as much like one sex as the other, and even if the voice gives it away, I don't see any reason why I couldn't play Nell. Except, I'm very glad Elaine Stritch is doing it.

TM: So will you and Elaine be switching roles for certain performances?
AE: It's almost possible, but I don't think it's going to happen.

TM: You've appeared in four previous versions of the play, and directed a few others. How is this one different?
AE: Beckett's work is a little like Shakespeare in that it's endless in its possibilities. But this is a much more domestic play than any of the others. Nagg and Nell are Hamm's parents and they've been put in the trash can -- that's where he keeps them.

TM: Had you always wanted to direct Endgame?
AE: Alan Schneider [who directed the American premieres of Godot and Endgame] was supposed to direct a 25th anniversary production -- and he had asked me to play Clov again -- but he suddenly got a production in England of another play and was not able to direct it here. So they asked me to direct it and play Clov, and I said "No. I cannot direct and play Clov. But if I'm playing Hamm, I'm in the controlling chair, since I have a relationship to the other actors which is commanding." It seemed like a natural extension of my work.

TM: Did you ever get to speak personally with Beckett?
AE: We had a long conversation once on the telephone, when I was playing Hamm and directing Endgame in 1984. Beckett wanted to know my idea -- less about staging than about casting actually. And when I hung up, if you had asked me what he was like I would have said he was the sweetest, gentlest, most lovely person. Very warm, very modest. Not the grim, depressing person you might expect to write these grim and depressing plays -- which are not grim and depressing by the way. They're comedies about the human situation.

TM: You just did an evening of short Beckett pieces up in Cambridge. What was that like?
AE: There were three of them, two of which had been radio plays: Words and Music and Cascando. Bob Scanlan [a Harvard professor and former president of the Beckett Society] directed them and we did it as though the audience was with us in a radio studio. Martin Pearlman, the musical director of Boston Baroque, actually composed new music for us, which wasn't baroque at all.

Alvin Epstein in The Tempest
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Alvin Epstein in The Tempest
(© T. Charles Erickson)
TM: You had done a similar evening previously, hadn't you?
AE: Some years earlier we had staged three of Beckett's television plays, Eh, Joe, Ghost Trio, and Nacht und Traume. Bob directed them so that there was a set on one side of the stage and on the other side was a huge screen that projected live images from the set so that you saw exactly what Beckett had wanted you to see on TV.

TM: Do you have anything else lined up after Endgame?
AE: I just finished doing Prospero in The Tempest at Boston's Actors Shakespeare Project, and Patrick Swanson, who directed it, set the whole thing suggesting a late Victorian magic show. But we didn't need fancy stage effects; we did the magic in full view. It's supposed to come to LaMaMa in September. And Bob Brustein just sent me a script of a play he'd like me to direct about Shakespeare and Marlowe, called The English Channel. I don't remember the last time I directed.

TM: Well, they're looking for a new artistic director up at A.R.T. Is that something you'd be interested in?
AE: N-O. But, of course, I'd still like to go up there and keep working. I am not planning to retire.


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