An Intriguing Production of
Also see Richard's review of Topdog/Underdog
Samuel Beckett has been called a playwright who has changed the face of theatre, and Waiting for Godot is now thought of as one of the great classics of the theater of the absurd in the 20th century. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called it "a mystery wrapped in an enigma." John Chapman of the New York Daily News said when it first opened in New York in 1956, "merely a stunt but not without its charms," and another New York critic said, "strange little play where nothing happens." I like British character actor Robert Morley's comment after viewing the play; sitting in his bathtub, he said morbidly, "this is the end of the theater as we have known it." However, dramatists such as Tennessee Williams and William Saroyan hailed it as a great classic and the beginning of a new way to present drama. Saroyan said dramatists could now write freely for the theater.
My first experience with the play was in May 1956 when I saw the American premiere with a stellar cast consisting of Bert Lahr, E. G. Marshall, Kurt Kasznar and Alvin Epstein at the John Golden Theatre in New York. I confess I was confused and said "whatisit?" It looked and sounded like a couple of bums on stage doing nothing but killing time waiting for someone named Godot. There was no story and no action, and I was not used to this kind of theater.
I grew to find the existentialist drama fascinating. I have seen many productions over the years, both in this country and in the UK. The presentations that stand out in my mind are Robin Williams and Steve Martin in Mike Nichols' production, which was more comic vaudeville than thought-provoking play. Peter Hall presented a great production at the Royal National with Alan Howard and Ben Kingsley as the tramps and the late Denis Quilley as Pozzo. There have been hundreds of productions of this irrational play all over the world since Beckett penned the play in its original French. There was even a production by the San Francisco Actors Workshop that was presented before 1400 convicts at San Quentin Penitentiary in 1957. The prisoners identified with Estragon and Vladimir.
The plot of Waiting for Godot is uncomplicated. The play is ostensibly about two tramps, Vladimir (Peter Frechette) and Estragon (Gregory Wallace), who spend the two acts near a sickly looking tree on a bit of wasted ground waiting for Godot. They quarrel, make up, mull over suicide, try to sleep, eat a carrot and chew on some chicken bones. Two additional characters appear, a master Pozzo (Steven Anthony Jones) and his slave Lucky (Frank Wood), who perform a bizarre scene in the first act.
A young boy (Jonathan Rosen) arrives at the end of each act to say that M. Godot will not come today but he will come tomorrow. Godot never comes, and the two tramps resume their vigil by the tree which has sprouted a few leaves on the second day (the setting for the second act). This is the only symbol of a possible order in this strange world. The two hobos are dressed like Chaplin characters with tight dark gray, worn clothes. They look like comics out of an American burlesque show. The master and slave look like half vaudeville characters and half marionettes. These are pure farce characters that the Italian del art troops used in the 18th century.
Waiting for Godot's language has significance, passion and succinctness. There is an extremely long speech of the downtrodden servant, who looks like the Mad Hatter, expounding on religion, government and everything else that is meaningless. It is a bravura performance by Tony winner Frank Wood. It reminded me of the long winded passage in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The drama has its own beauty and makes a comment on man's absurd hope and the ridiculous insignificance of man.
The Godot cast is impressive. Peter Frechette and Gregory Wallace make an excellent double act, instituting both the physical and temperamental differences between the tramps and their mutual dependency. Their comedy of vaudeville crosstalk comes over clear and sharp because of their punctuated speech. Wallace excels in this sharp comedy role, his best to date with ACT. His comic timing is right on the mark, even though he whines a lot at times. Frechette is superb in the more talkative role. His airy, vibrant musings are brilliantly timed. His voice pulsates through the whole theater. This is a great performance.
Steven Anthony Jones as the master is properly boisterous. He plays the character like a blustering English aristocrat while Frank Wood plays the slave role with silent stares, and walks with a stooped shuffle. There are times you can't take your eyes off of him as he is constantly shaking, with mouth wide open like the famous "Scream" painting. Jonathan Rosen has little to do as the young boy but to be somewhat afraid of the two hobos.
Director Carey Perloff has placed this production more on a vaudeville level, and there is much punctuation of the speeches. This is especially prevalent in the scenes with the hounding of Pozzo against his disheveled, much abused slave. The many long pauses in the first act make that act one and half hours long, the longest act of the play that I have ever seen.
Set design by J.B. Wilson is the standard Godot set with one tree and a long clean cut ramp that represents a road. At the end of each act, a giant moon pops up and Russell H. Champa's beautiful night blue light fills the stage.
Waiting for Godot plays through November 16 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.
The next production is the perennial Dickens' A Christmas Carol opening on November 29th.