The Hypocrites enter the bleak, absurd world of Samuel Beckett.

Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw, and Donna McGough in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, directed by Halena Kays, at the Den Theatre.
Kurt Ehrmann, Brian Shaw, and Donna McGough in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, directed by Halena Kays, at the Den Theatre.
(© Evan Hanover)

Entering the immersive environment of the Hypocrites Endgame, feels like walking into a colorful children's birthday party that takes place in a post-apocalyptic hell. Party hats, bowls of candy, and brightly colored lamps await at every seat. The stage resembles a giant puppet theater with swirling curlicue embellishments. But when the curtain's pulled back, that cheery structure reveals a decrepit, hellish interior.

Directed by Halena Kays for the Hypocrites, Samuel Beckett's absurdist, macabre comedy teeters between slapstick and despair. It's a nearly plotless vaudeville skit, distorted by degradation and nihilism. Not even a sugar high from the candy can mask the claustrophobic, Sisyphean pointlessness embodied by the four characters onstage. This is a world where parents who outlive their usefulness wind up as double amputees shoved into rusted garbage cans; where both sea and sky are a monochromatic shade of leaden gray; where the only thing to brighten your day is a dose of painkillers. And where, when the prescription runs out, you're trapped in a circle worse than anything Dante conjured.

There's a primal fear that accompanies Endgame's insistence that human lives are nothing but inconsequentially minuscule blips on some unknowably vast cosmic radar. Beckett's bleak text taps into that fear, and then shrouds it with zany, morbid comedy.

Kays has chosen her cast wisely. The always-watchable Kurt Ehrmann plays Hamm, a tyrannical blind man unable to leave the ratty armchair-on-wheels that is his prison and his throne. He's a contradiction personified, both a brutal dictator and enfeebled child, all powerful and all but totally helpless.

As Hamm's servant Clov, Brian Shaw calls to mind an ancient, ghoulish marionette. Staggering about trying to keep up with the eccentric, abusive demands of Hamm, Clov is often literally going in circles, but it's not a joyous circle of life Beckett is illustrating. This is life as a laborious loop of meaningless acts with each new generation asking the same unanswerable questions and ultimately suffering the same forgettable fate. Shaw's lurching, strangely beautiful physical prowess puts that cycle into stark relief.

As Clov and Hamm go through their angry, frustrated machinations, they're intermittently interrupted by Hamm's trash-can dwelling parents Nell (Donna McGough) and Nag (Sean Sinitski). Looking like Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, McGough is a tragic clown, the face (and torso) of a discarded woman whose death barely warrants a shrug. Sinitski is forlorn and hostile, an angry man made impotent by age and a callous, godless world.

Endgame's designers have done remarkable work in building Kays' conceptual world. In addition to a decaying puppet theater, Elizabeth Bracken's set calls to mind the colorful wagons used by the traveling snake oil salesman of a century ago — or the Wizard of Oz when he was just a Kansas huckster. The set is a ghastly wonder, from the tiny windows that look out on nothing but gray to the ghostly hashmarks on the wall that look like a calendar gouged by the fingernails of some long-forgotten prisoner.

Maggie Fullilove-Nugent's lighting extends to dozens of tiny colored lamps that mark each seat in the audience, providing a warm sunset-hued contrast to the often merciless, bright spotlights that make the stage feel like an interrogation room. Jessica Kuehnau Wardell's costumes are splendidly tattered, with Nell ghostly in an ancient wedding dress, Nag sporting a dusty top hat and Hamm seeking refuge under a blood-stained handkerchief. Nathan Rohrer's makeup finds unlikely beauty in a palette of red-rimmed eyes and death-white skin tones.

As a commentary on aging, Endgame is more than a little unsettling. As a comedy, it's slapstick filtered through a grotesque nightmare. However you want to classify it, it's a mighty success.

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Closed: April 5, 2015