Exploring ‘Endgame’

The lovely couple: Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern of Elkins Park per­form while they are con­fined to trash bins throughout the Beck­ett play at the Ar­den Theatre.

Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern are a couple in real life, and play one in this show. But in life, they don’t spend their days in trash cans.

In the Ar­den Theatre Com­pany’s cur­rent pro­duc­tion of En­dgame, only four act­ors are on stage. Two of them, Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern of Elkins Park, play the roles of hus­band and wife — the same role they have in real life.

Mar­ried for 25 years, both have ex­tens­ive theat­er cred­its, and have played hus­band and wife be­fore. In fact, that’s one reas­on dir­ect­or Ed­ward So­bel cast them in En­dgame. “He felt there would be some ba­sic un­der­stand­ing between the two of us about what it’s like to live to­geth­er,” Boykin said.

But they have nev­er lived the way they do in the world of En­dgame, which was writ­ten by No­bel prize-win­ning play­wright Samuel Beck­ett. Dur­ing their en­tire time on stage, the two are con­fined to over­size trash cans. The reas­on is nev­er clear, which is just one ex­ample of Beck­ett’s trade­mark sur­real style.  

The play ex­plores a co-de­pend­ent re­la­tion­ship between two men. One of them, Hamm, is the son of Nell and Nag, who are played by Boykin and Kern.  For un­ex­plained reas­ons, Hamm can­not stand. His com­pan­ion, Clov, can­not sit down. And all four are con­fined to a single room.

 Hamm sits in a chair, while Clov paces and strides around the room.  And Nell and Nag, in trash cans, are vis­ible only from the waist up.  Their speak­ing roles are small, and their ges­tures are lim­ited be­cause of their con­fine­ment.

Boykin ad­mit­ted that on first read­ing the script, her re­ac­tion was, “Oh gosh, I hope our dir­ect­or will help us ne­go­ti­ate this be­cause I’m not sure I know how to handle it.” 

In­deed, it’s not easy even to stay in po­s­i­tion on the stage.  “We’re on our knees on the floor as if our legs have been cut off,” Kern said. (The reas­on they are leg­less is also un­ex­plained.) “I move as if I only have stumps when I change my body po­s­i­tion from one dir­ec­tion to an­oth­er.” 

Even with foam rub­ber pad­ding on the floor, it’s tough on the knees, and it took its toll.  “It cre­ated stress on my back, and I ad­ap­ted by re­lax­ing to re­lieve the ten­sion,” he ex­plained.  

But this theat­er trouper isn’t com­plain­ing. “It’s been an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ence,” he said. “But not a prob­lem.”

Nor does Boykin have any prob­lem with look­ing un­kempt on stage. She wears a gray wig with disheveled hair. 

That’s not all. “We’re covered in dirt and ash, and our teeth are kind of rot­ten,” Boykin said. 

Even though their speak­ing parts are spare, there are dra­mat­ic chal­lenges. “Al­though the play is dark, Beck­ett also wrote with hu­mor,” said Boykin. “And we have to make both as­pects work — the dark cir­cum­stances and the hu­mor. We have to laugh at our pre­dic­a­ment.” 

 In fact, her char­ac­ter, Nell, has the most fam­ous line in the play. “Noth­ing is fun­ni­er than un­hap­pi­ness.” 

Be­cause of all the chal­lenges of this ex­ist­en­tial drama, Boykin is grate­ful to play her role as wife along­side an act­or whose work she re­spects and ad­mires — her hus­band. 

 “I have a huge amount of re­spect for him both as an act­or, dir­ect­or and teach­er,” she said of Kern.  “The op­por­tun­ity to work with him was a piece of great good luck.”

 In turn, he’s a ma­jor fan of his wife’s work. “She’s pas­sion­ate about her pre­par­a­tion,” he said. “And she brings a com­plex­ity and a pres­ence to her roles. “

They’ve had oth­er ex­per­i­ences be­ing in the same show. In one re­cent pro­duc­tion of the new play de­vel­op­ment group called Play Penn, she por­trayed a wife whose hus­band had died. “But he was on the stage as a memory, and in one scene, we even danced to­geth­er on the stage,” Boykin said. “There was something ma­gic­al about do­ing that to­geth­er.”

Now both are again en­joy­ing this chance to ap­pear to­geth­er on the same stage. Kern, 64, is mak­ing his Ar­den de­but with this role. “The role is small but the chal­lenge is to bring the writ­ing to life,” he said. “And work­ing with such tal­en­ted act­ors makes the work fun.”

For Boykin, 63, this is her fourth Ar­den role and her first time in a Beck­ett play. “I’ve been chal­lenged by the ma­ter­i­al,” she said. “And I’m im­pressed with the great skill of the dir­ect­or and the oth­er act­ors. So it’s been a won­der­ful ex­per­i­ence.” ••


En­dgame at the Ar­den Theatre, 40 N. 2ndSt. in Old City, con­tin­ues through March 10. For tick­ets call 215-922-1122 or vis­it www.ar­dentheatre.org

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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