Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The show is set during the rehearsal for a scrappy, avant garde production of Beckett's classic comedy. Doug, the director, has cast a group of young men who perform in their underwear instead of the older, clothed actors one usually sees in productions of this play. Tara, a representative from Beckett's estate, unexpectedly barges into the rehearsal to make sure the production is in line with the author's original intentions. Doug tells Tara that nowhere in the script does it specifically specify the ages of the actors and that, while it does mention hats, boots and belts that the characters wear, it never says the actors can't be simply dressed in their underwear. So he believes that he is line with Beckett's script and isn't doing anything to dishonor the original work.
The play is an interesting look at how a theatre company or director tries to make changes to a famous work, which is something that's easy to do for a Shakespeare play or any work that's in the public domain, but more difficult when the author is still alive or the play is managed by an estate. Over the course of the 75-minute, one act play, Pflaster poses interesting questions that examine how far someone should be allowed to go in reinterpreting another's work. He also includes humorous and intriguing theatrical commentary that asks such questions as, should a play be clear and understandable enough to an audience without requiring them to have to study or do research on it in advance? And what about added homoeroticism in plays and films (the nipples on Batman's suit in the Batman films are the catalyst for this topic)are you homophobic if you say you feel that adding that element to a piece of art is unnecessary?
There is also some good dialogue about the endless number of different ways directors have presented Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream and also how companies try to make updated changes to shows in order to make them relevant for modern audiences. There is even a hilarious line about how some theatre companies find ways to put nudity in a show to sell tickets. That line got a huge laugh at the performance I attended as it seemed specifically written as a statement on Nearly Naked's shows. Though, from the twenty or so Nearly Naked shows I've seen, I've felt the added nudity always served the plot or the characters and was never gratuitous, something their production of this play is also in line with.
The majority of the information mentioned in the piece is based on factual data where a production has faced off against an overly litigious author or estate of the author who have gone after them when they didn't believe that changes the production made or the way the work was being presented were within the original intent of the work. While the dialogue concerning these factual stories is well crafted and mostly well incorporated, there are a few moments when the words don't quite seem to be character specific. It's as if Pflaster had facts he needed to get into his play and just shoehorned the dialogue in where the characters could be regurgitating these factual points. This is especially odd when one of the characters seems clueless when another is talking to him about this topic and then, just a few moments later, that clueless character delivers similar information. In addition to those somewhat confusing moments, the play is also a bit wordy, repetitive, doesn't really have a clear resolution, and the arguments are pretty much all one sided. However, the way the play mirrors, lampoons and, most importantly, respects Beckett's work, especially in how the play's ending is on par with Beckett's and how there is also a lot of talk with no resolution or action, just like there is in Waiting for Godot, makes for a quite interesting play that is more than just a show with guys standing around in their underwear.
Damon Dering's direction and pacing are good, with the added moments where we see the cast act out a few moments from Beckett's play quite enjoyable. Jason M. Hammond does well as Doug, the stressed, harried and agitated director whose vision for the play quickly starts to crumble around him. Amie Bjorklund strikes the right professional tone as Tara, the representative of Beckett's estate who, while a passionate advocate for the estate and hard edged at times, is also eager, it seems, to find a way to grant Doug's vision of the play.
In the play within the play, Daniel Zemeida and Chase Zeiner are very good as the main characters of Godot, and also sweetly play two actors who are romantically involved. Christopher Dozier adds a few humorous moments as one of the supporting actors. Christian Boden is fun as Kevin, the self-absorbed actor who plays Lucky and, like that character, he remains silent for most of the play until he bursts forth with a hilarious monologue, which is well delivered.
Dering's and Paul Wilson's set design perfectly portrays an unfinished set for the show within the show, with paint cans strewn around and even a partially painted and unfinished rock on stage. The giant moon and paper tree are simple yet beautiful and appropriate to Beckett's original play. Dering's costumes, while basically non-existent for most of the cast, serve each character and the point of the play well. Ike Towers' lighting provides several varied moments, including a rewarding ending.
As the character of Tara states, a reimagined production still has to serve and enlighten the original work. The Underpants Godot succeeds in meeting that task, as it is an intriguing look into the limits of personal interpretation of a well-known piece of drama while also being a compelling case for the defense of the author's original intent.
The Underpants Godot, through April 28th, 2018, at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org.
Written by Duncan Pflaster