Review: Waiting for Godot by Austin Jewish Repertory Theatre
by Michael Meigs
Adam Roberts, guiding force of the Austin Jewish Repertory Theatre, chose the season of Passover and Lent to stage this famously enigmatic parable of Samuel Beckett, the dour Catholic atheist who originally wrote the piece in French. Roberts has staged it in the sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim on the campus of the Dell Jewish Center.
The above paragraph should give you lots to chew on, especially if you know anything about the play and Beckett's work in general.
If you don't, you can Google away and treat yourself to a wide sea of analysis, for Waiting for Godot is generally considered to be one of the greatest dramatic works of the twentieth century. Perhaps the greatest.
One aspect of the genius of the work is its complex simplicity. Two men wait in a barren space by a single tree. They're waiting for someone named Godot, and they pass the time in trivialities. An odd pair, harsh eloquent master and dully submissive slave, pass through and provide distraction. A boy reports that Godot's not coming. After an intermission the chat resumes, the odd pair reappears. Another boy -- perhaps the same one, pretending to be his own brother -- reports that Godot is not coming.
You can step as deep as you dare into this engima. Time, existentialism, uneasy friendship, futility, the enduring unfulfilled promise of something -- anything! It's ripe for metaphor and symbolic interpretation.
I first saw it when I was 18 and a couple of male theatre friends performed parts of it, leaving me in awe and confusion. Ronnie Prior directed a whimsical version at the Sam Bass Community Theatre in 2010 and kt shorb's Generic Ensemble Company adapted it as Stuck on GeeDot and performed it with a three-woman cast the same year; City Theatre staged the play in 2015; and Playhouse Smithville scheduled Sam Blasco's original comedy Waiting for Waiting for Godot for last month.
Roberts's AJRT staging affected me deeply. It takes place in the same space where we mourned the death of a close acquaintance last year and some time later returned for a tribute concert. I attended the opening night performance still somewhat numb from the entirely unexpected death of the brother I was closest to. Beckett wrote the play two years before my birth, and it was staged in the United States for the first time when I was seven. Time glides onward, friends, and like Vladimir and Estragon -- Didi and Gogo -- we fill it with activity and talk and immediate preoccupations. If we're lucky and gifted -- not Lucky or Pozzo -- we take the time and make the effort to make sense of it all. To ask ourselves if Godot exists and whether it makes a difference if he does.
By the way, the word 'enigma' comes from Roman and Greek expressions meaning 'to speak in riddles,' derived from αἶνος -- 'fable' or, in a New Testament context, 'praise.' Even the etymology supports Beckett's deliberate ambiguities.
The cast does not use the French pronunciation of 'Godot.' The director's metaphor is clear when they refer to 'GAHD-oh' -- God-oh. And Didi's offhand puzzling over the crucifixion conversation of Jesus with the two thieves seemed thoroughly ecumenical in that place.
Bill Karnovsky as Vladimir (Didi) speaks quietly and reflectively, an affable though puzzled senior presence, while Ben Seidman as Estragon (Gogo) has a perpetual annoyance about him. His recurring declaration 'I'm going!' is that of a younger man who really does think there's somewhere else to go. Roberts stages almost all of their conversation close to the audience in various places about the central sacred space; spectators are gathered in the northwest corner of the sanctuary. In contrast the outsiders/intruders emerge along the far wall and generally traverse that space below the closed doors of the inset tabernacle. Kyle Lindsey as Pozzo the master has the assurance and crisp vocal projection of a ringmaster or a car salesman. Bennett Neiman as Lucky the silent slave remains dejected and passive until his single long garbled outburst, delivered with such affirmative authority that one is duped from sentence to sentence into thinking that it's actually going to make sense.
Lighting of the performance space is unvaried, delivered by scoops either unfiltered and with reddish gels suspended from the balcony behind the audience. The dim unchangng glare was suited to the subject matter; in Beckett's unchanging world not even the daylight alters to provide psychic escape.
Judah Braunstein as the messsenger boys delivers brave emphatic performances, but he's undercut by the blocking. Most of what he has to say is 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' in dialogue with grandfatherly Karnovsky as Vladimir. Didi faces us throughout, and we can read his concern as he interrogates the boy; Braunstein stands with full back to the audience in both encounters.
The lines in this production that struck me the hardest are matched. First is the blinded Pozzo's vexed exit speech in Act 2:
POZZZO: . . . They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
And Vladimir's musing upon it after surveying the dozing Estragon, just before the boy arrives for the second time:
VLADIMIR: . . . Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can't go on! (Pause.) What have I said?
My deeper reactions to this Waiting for Godot were necessarily shaped by the factors I mention, but let me emphasize my great pleasure at Beckett's language, its directions and misdirections, as well as the evident depth of character realized in this production, possible only through intense study and collaboration. I have always enjoyed Beckett's use of short-phrase ongoing exchanges that often spring from misunderstandings or unarticulated thoughts -- a 'ping-pong' technique in dialogue somewhat similar to the formal alternation in ancient Greek drama referred to as stichomythia.
For those not familiar with the structure of the play it would have been useful to indicate in the program sheet that it's a work in two acts. Since nothing happens, although a lot is happening, Didi and Gogo's abrupt departure after about an hour onstage appeared to confuse some of the audience, who wondered if the play was already over. It took a long moment for the house lights in the sanctuary to come on and for the stage manager to appear to rearrange things in the playing space.
March 23 - April 02, 2017
somewhere in Austin
to be announced
Austin, TX, 78700
Tickets $18 - $22 plus fees, available online through