Interview: Filmmaker Jim Bernfield Follows Two Actors With Parkinson's as They Perform Endgame
In a time when live theater faces a perilous future, a new documentary takes that uncertainty to a personal level, exploring the process of fighting for a production while battling degenerative disease.
Jim Bernfield's film Me to Play, available for viewing through February 25 as part of the Slamdance festival, follows two veteran actors as they pursue a one-night-only performance of a lifetime. Dan Moran and Chris Jones, who first met while performing in A Month in the Country with Helen Mirren in 1995, are united by a mission to present Samuel Beckett's absurdist tragicomedy Endgame if it's the last performance they do.
Coincidentally diagnosed with Parkinson's at the same time, the actors find purpose in illuminating Beckett's prose, with Moran taking on the role of the blind, paralyzed, and malicious Hamm, and Jones his put-upon servant, Clov. Under the collaborative direction of Joe Grifasi and producer Ruth Kreska, Moran and Jones bring their impeccable comic timing, decades of experience, and the driving need to infuse Beckett's blithely nihilistic words with an authentic emotional and physical turmoil to New York's Classic Stage Company.
As Moran and Jones uncover layer upon layer of meaning through the context of their own lives, and the self-driven imperative to do justice to the play Beckett wrote after his own mother passed from Parkinson's, Me to Play becomes an argument in favor of actors playing characters with whom they share an intimate, unteachable familiarity.
Here, Bernfield discusses his role in documenting this years-in-the-making project.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What drew you to this project?
Dan and I met watching football together at an East Village bar. Over time, we became closer, sharing projects together. At one point, he said, "I have something to tell you: I have Parkinson's." He didn't really have to tell me because my father had Parkinson's, and died a couple of years before; I saw the same musculature in his face that I saw with my dad.
Later, after I graduated film school, Dan said, "Hey, I'm doing this project – would you like to direct it?" He had to tell me about how Beckett's Endgame really is a metaphor for life with Parkinson's. It made me realize just how universal this struggle is. And so he said, "I'd like you to meet Chris Jones, who I met in the back of a Broadway dressing room 15 years ago." I said "absolutely."
This is definitely something which Dan initiated. He found Endgame, which I'm sure he had read many, many times before, and it just resonated with him so deeply. The fact is, Beckett wrote it after his mother and favorite aunt had passed away from the disease, and it can really be seen as his take on living with it. Everyone thinks Beckett is this out-there, surrealistic playwright. But in fact, he just strips away all of the ancillary materials, and you're left with the heart and soul of the situation.
Did you, Dan, and Chris have the same goals in making this documentary?
I know that they wanted to publicize their production, but I think it's deeper than that, actually. They knew that their time at the top of their game was receding because of Parkinson's and I think they wanted to create something that would be a marker for these careers they've thrived in, and wanted to make sure that their kids, their friends, could see them forever.
I just wanted to tell a really good story, and I knew that this would be. And I'm glad that I've been proven right. I didn't quite realize, but I would also wrestle with the specter of the experience I had with my own dad. I had put it away in a big way and blocked it, but having to see my friends go through it again, and be the person who knows what the "end" is in Endgame touched me in a really deep way.
The night before opening, everyone's experiencing tech jitters in addition to brain fog, and director Joe Grifasi attempts to motivate by saying Beckett is about overcoming rather than giving up. Did that resonate with you?
I read the play when starting this project, and I found this poster from Cherry Lane Theatre, where it [played in the ‘50s], and it says "Hilarious! Laugh riot! Fell out of my seat!" So I talked to Dan, and said, it's dour, and dark, and torturous! He's like, "Yeah, right, you read it, you didn't see it. Wait till you see it, it's a whole different thing."
Beckett, I think, sees the world as a tortured place where suffering is the norm. The only way to handle it is to take it with a grain of salt. He takes on the world, turns it on its side, shakes it a little bit, shows you what he sees. I, too, see the world as sort of nasty, brutish, and short. But at the same time, I think that he also believes that all we can do is laugh. There's one line in the play, which Chris says: "You're on Earth, there's no cure for that." And that is like my vision that I share with Beckett: We're here, we're kind of stuck with it. I'm with Beckett; make a joke about the hardest situations. I guess my answer to you is, I absolutely see what Joe says, that it's about persevering.
Olivier-winner Niall Buggy speaks to this being the clearest performance of Endgame that he's ever seen. I can't help imagining that both Dan and Chris's interpretation of the play as directly tied to Parkinson's has a great deal to do with that.
I think it certainly does. Also, they got a note from Bill Irwin, and he felt like these guys really clarified it in a huge way. They really put their hearts and souls into this project. In the ways these characters are trapped, Dan and Chris are too, so they could bring their experience to it in a deep way. And at the same time, they're really skilled actors. So they can also characterize it in ways that a great actor would.
Me to Play is available to watch at Slamdance Film Festival until February 25.