The wearing of the green

Endgame/The Playboy of the Western World

Paul Whitworth as Hamm and Nick Ullett as Nagg in Beckett’s <i>Endgame</i>.

Paul Whitworth as Hamm and Nick Ullett as Nagg in Beckett’s Endgame.

Rated 5.0

The Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival is dedicated to one playwright above all others. But what sets this year’s Santa Cruz series apart from other summer Shakespeare fests are smart, timely productions of two Irish plays. Both are major, controversial works, and both (alas!) are seldom staged in Sacramento.

J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World premiered in Dublin in 1907. It was greeted by riots, since certain Irish nationalists found it immoral. It’s a coming-of-age story, basically a comedy, about a young man who says he’s killed his cruel, abusive father. Paradoxically, the young man is acclaimed by the common folk in a rural town—but there’s a catch.

A century later, this story still carries a sting. But Playboy also harkens back to the critical point at which being Irish became “cool” on stage. Previously, Irish playwrights like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw moved to London to establish their careers—and didn’t celebrate their homeland after they arrived. Playboy was the breakthrough that cleared the way for decades of Irish plays (including some that have played here at California Stage and the B Street Theatre). It also contains a beautifully told story; Synge created earthy Irish peasant characters, and put glorious, natural language in their mouths. And the Santa Cruz production is marvelous—by turns outrageously funny, romantic, touching, teasing and tense.

The other Irish play at Santa Cruz is Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a challenging absurdist classic, still unsettling after 50 years. It takes place in a grey room in a nameless location, where the almost random conversation between four very strange characters becomes almost circular. Yet it’s hard to take your eyes off this production, wittily directed by Peter Lichtenfels (of the UC Davis faculty), with a remarkable performance by Paul Whitworth, the British-born actor whose work has highlighted this fest for 23 years. (Whitworth is retiring as its artistic director).

A successful production of Endgame—this surely is one—poses many questions (with few answers) through scenes that blend scalding humor and bleak resignation. To quote the script, “nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Endgame is likewise a rare find here in River City (Ed Claudio’s small production at his now-defunct theater being the only recent exception). So, if you’ve never seen it or The Playboy of the Western World, consider a quick trip to Santa Cruz.