The controversy surrounding the American Repertory Theatre's production of Samuel Beckett's ''Endgame'' is unfortunate, but it raises some probing questions about the importance of the script. Should it be treated as sacred, and never touched, or considered a blueprint for the director's imaginings? (See the Hilary DeVries article in yesterday's Monitor, Page 23, for more information.)
Beckett is very specific. Although his plays are set in timeless, spaceless voids, within those nebulous perimeters he is precise about many directions, even the number of steps his characters take. In his plays, his characters, who, like vulnerable yet feisty plants pushing their way through cracks in a Manhattan sidewalk, are always searching for identity and independence, make a whole life out of very few physical props or sets.
In JoAnne Akalaitis's production, the characters are given a definite physical environment. Instead of a bare cell-like room, as specified in the stage directions, they're in a subway tunnel, with a ruined subway car and a puddle of water. All of these anchor them in today's world; there are resonances of the homeless, and of life after nuclear war.
What does this do to Beckett's intention? When we can recognize our own life and times in the physical details of the people onstage, does that make us feel closer to the heart of the play? Or does it instead lure us to substitute our own notions about the homeless and how they got there instead of focusing on the timeless condition of loneliness? This production may perhaps cause the audience to feel more compassion, but it may also cause them think about ''them, '' instead of about ''us.'' Beckett's plays are about all of us, not some of us, and the danger of this production is that people may not see themselves in it.
I don't think the production is a travesty. It is stark and gritty, and much of what Beckett is saying about relationships comes through as Clov sloshes through the water in his endless ritual of dominance and submission with Hamm. There is a surprising amount of humor; John Bottoms, with his feral ways and raspy voice, is a perfect Beckett actor. It is ''accessible'' Beckett and may draw people to the playwright who might otherwise have not understood him. But ultimately, in Beckett, it's the absence of externals that permits the internals to flourish and bloom in us. ART has taken these little plants, which need no tending, and built a greenhouse for them.
In ART's other production, The King Stag, (running in repertory) the company is also showing that it holds physical accouterments - in this case lighting, costumes, masks, and puppets - in high esteem. Here, however, there's no problem , because the play itself, an 18th-century Italian commedia dell'arte fable, is so lightweight that it is only enhanced by this dazzling production. In fact, the real ''star'' is Julie Taymor, who did the costumes, puppetry, and masks.
Filled with intrigue, true love, and quests, ''The King Stag'' is a fairy tale about a king trying to choose a loyal queen from his 2,748 women subjects; a jealous prime minister; and the submersion, through a spell, of the king's identity into first a stag, then an old man.
It's easy to forget the plot and just watch the costumes walk around. Miss Taymor has taken us into an Oriental fairyland, called Serendippo, with fantastical costumes. One dress I can only describe as looking like a Navajo sunset. Another is a ''skirt'' made of three bouncing hoops on which dance multicolored squares of material. The costumes have a Javanese and Balinese sense about them, gleaned from Taymor's travels. The ''stags'' are large puppets operated by light-fingered actors who produce a delicate, spindle-legged grace from their charges. An enormous Oriental mask makes elaborate faces when the king's spouse applicants show their true colors during the interview. Shadow puppet animals shown on bendable, reflecting Plexiglas seem to come straight at us, then float fuzzily away. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is equally exotic.
The ART clan has developed, with director Andre Serban, a special gift for lunacy and lightness. It's a hodgepodge of old and new language, a melange of movements. Some of the actors have almost a Western slapstick sense; others, a restrained Oriental.
Aside from the appetizer of the evening, a fluffy ''short'' called The Love of Three Oranges, ART has taken us to a new kingdom, one of gentle dreams, and flights of fancy. This is a perfect holiday show to take children to.