Review: Waiting for Godot by City Theatre Company
by David Glen Robinson
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett may be the best literary statement of post-World War II angst in existence, and it's an influential expression of where we remain philosophically in the post-Holocaust Nuclear Age. Playing now at City Theatre in east Austin, it's a monument of 20th century modernist theatre produced frequently in the current era, a work never to be missed when presented nearby.
Most dedicated theatregoers know the story: the play comes to a halt rather than an end. The main characters wait for an off-stage character named Godot, and while waiting they stake their claim to all the hopelessness and futility in the world. Written in the heyday of existentialism (it premiered in 1953), the play draws on ideas also seen in the philosophical writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre and others. It was written long before postmodernism and other more recently articulated themes in philosophy.
Given all that public familiarity, every production of Godot now is all about how it is produced; City Theatre’s production of the play stands up well to any production of it, perhaps anywhere.
Waiting for Godot is predominantly narrative dialogue among a cast of five male characters.The focal characters are Vladimir (nicknamed Didi, portrayed by Wray Crawford) and Estragon (nicknamed Gogo, portrayed by Jamie Parker). They're shabby sterno bums who inveigh against the injustice and hopelessness of the world, get their theology wrong, insist they deserve more in this world, and place misguided faith in Godot as one who will provide them with solutions. Beckett makes it clear in the text that these characters, stripped entirely of class, stand for all of humanity. Treating them as pitiable characters would be to let yourself and them off the hook. Condescending to them would render the play opaque, your mistake.
Wray Crawford’s Vladimir is the dreamer and observer, the one with a grain of optimism, shot down at every hand. He gazes into the far distance for Godot. These questing looks are like emotional scales, beginning with hope and curiosity, then turning to frustration and pain, sometimes ending with flashes of anger. Crawford elevates the far-distant gaze to theatrical art.
Jamie Parker’s Estragon is the goose that wakes up in a new world each day, and he takes a few naps over the course of the play. This quality allows him to back into frequent ironic retorts to Vladimir. He never watches for Godot.
The dialogues between Didi and Gogo as guided by Director Karen Sneed bring out the homoerotic thread that has been suggested by many. Estragon speaks of the Dead Sea as the place they’ll go on their honeymoon. Later Didi and Gogo share a laugh by observing that they've been together for 50 years. Throughout, they threaten each other with leaving, or staying, or violence, but neither rises to the bait—these are just stupid marital games that only bored and boring married couples find exciting.
Other characters also speak for Beckett’s misery. Existential despair, thy name is Pozzo, portrayed by Marc Balester. Beckett cares little for nature, preferring to mock it instead. In describing twilight, almost everyone’s favorite time of day, Pozzo orates upon it and finishes with “that’s how it is on this bitch of a world.” Pozzo’s “one day” speech upon exiting Act II and the play is Beckett’s finest and clearest statement of life’s futility and hopelessness. Balester recognizes this and with the powerful speech stamps his name firmly on this production of Godot. Very well done.
Brett Tribe as Lucky has several face-down-on-the-ground silent scenes in the play. He excels at them. One wonders, however, at the intention behind the apparent Goth/punk styling and costuming of this character. Costume designer Rosalie Oliveri has produced a consistent wasteland look across the cast, with Lucky’s appearance the only seemingly aberrant exception. Otherwise Tribe’s Lucky is memorable.
A Boy is played by 10-year old A.J. Far. He turns up suddenly in the play, almost as an apparition. He delivers his messages and lines shortly and abruptly, ending almost every line with “Sir.” When one reads the text of Godot, one notes that the dialogues are largely one-line exchanges that continue page after page. Beckett may actually have intended that the lines be delivered in a flat, direct, almost staccato way. This is indeed how young Master Far delivers his lines, hands unmoving at his sides yet at ease; and one can almost feel the arid wasteland gusts blowing through his spiky, unkempt hair. Far’s performance is exceptional, and he has huge potential as an actor. A Boy is the icing on the cake of a must-see show.
Director Sneed definitely took the play in a different direction for actors other than Far, and the long, physically active dialogues of Act I take their toll in Act II. The equally long dialogues in Act II have an acting lab feel to them, with much physical wooling around, glad handing, shrugging, hand and arm gestures and other acting devices to dress up and help support scenes. The overuse of gesture in Act II may well be attributable to actor fatigue. In Godot such artifices aren’t necessary to support the already strong material, but they can of course be applied to meet actors' needs. The trick with artifice is not to let it show unless it is a deliberate instruction of the playwright.
Beckett gave explicit instructions for the now-famous set of Godot, and they are surprisingly harmonious with the space challenges facing City Theatre. Set and lighting designer Andy Berkovsky meets all those challenges and gives audiences one of the best sets he has ever designed. It conveys the wasteland beautifully; as an art piece, the set and associated lighting sets might be entitled “Wasteland with Moonrise.” The aesthetic is perfect for Godot.
All audiences are invited to enjoy this set and this well performed take on Beckett’s existential wail now through June 7, 2015 at City Theatre.
May 15 - June 07, 2015
3823 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78722
May 15 – June 7. Thursday - Saturday 8:00 pm. Sunday 5:30 pm.