In 1998, Britain's Royal National Theatre polled 800 playwrights, actors, directors and journalists asking for their choice as the 20th century's most significant English-language play. Surprisingly, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera were left off the list in favor of suspiciously serious work such as Arthur Miller's A Death of a Salesman, John Osborne's Look Back In Anger and Tony Kushner's Angels In America.
Atop the list was a 1954 play written by Samuel Beckett, a native Irishman who actually wrote in French: Waiting for Godot. The piece, about two tramps desperately trying to pass time while waiting for a mysterious man named Godot, has been as deeply interpreted as any since Shakespeare's Hamlet. It's been called everything from an exploration of existential alienation to the most literate testament of the decay of language ever written. But for those who plumb its depths hoping to unlock its explanatory key, there are just as many who find it hopelessly befuddling. Both camps have a right to wave their respective standard. Its lack of plot or intense dramatic action, along with its circular wordplay and refusal to announce itself as being about anything other than what is before the audience—a play about two characters waiting—both inspires and frustrates.
Whether you think Godot is an astonishingly rendered exploration of the futility of the human condition (which it most certainly is), or the theatrical equivalent of an afternoon spent in a California DMV office (ditto), it remains something utterly unique. Nothing before or since has felt like Godot, and it should absolutely be on the list of 10 plays everyone should see before they check out. A fine entry point into Beckett's absurd world, as well a reminder of Godot's singular brilliance, is found in the Hunger Artists' current production, which strikes a fine balance between the high art of Beckett's existential philosophy and the low art of its vaudevillian, physically based comedy.
Waiting for Godot at the Hunger Artists Theatre Co. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through March 13. $15-$18.
All too often, Godot is approached with such slavering reverence it can almost feel like a production feels fortunate just for the opportunity to be in the same room as Beckett's script—but concentrating solely on the slapstick, vulgar elements is just as dangerous. This production, directed by Glendele Way-Agle, resists both temptations by doing something that many interpretations miserably fail to achieve: staging the play as written. While some elements of Way-Agle's production don't work—Beckett's low mound of earth on a simple country road turned into a haphazardly arranged bunch of wooden pallets, an unnecessarily obtrusive lighting design that illuminates the audience as much as the actors—there is no denying that she and her cast understand that Beckett's play is both post-graduate-level philosophical meditation and frat-house hijinks.
The key roles in any Godot are, obviously, those of Vladimir and Estragon, the vagabonds who spend two days fruitlessly trying to pass the time waiting for Godot to arrive. Greg Ungar keenly renders the more contemplative and hopeful Vladimir, incorporating a spirited sense of physical comedy (his rapport with his hat is a beauty to watch) and intellectual paralysis. Vladimir desperately wants to believe in something, anything: that Godot truly is coming, that yesterday's events actually happened, that tomorrow will arrive. Yet there is a wrenching, profound sadness to his belief, and Ungar masterfully captures the dichotomy. As the more visceral and manic Estragon, Ponzer Berkman occasionally overplays the physical. But he also feels beautifully and rottenly human, and the connection he shares with Ungar's Vladimir, both in its heartfelt moments of fraternal affection and its more strained periods, gives their relationship a weird, if compelling, George-and-Lenny feel, à la Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
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The two other main roles—Pozzo, a whip-snapping landowner, and Lucky, his brutally abused slave—also feel completely integrated. Steeve Jacobs' Pozzo feels stiff at times, but he lends an air that's both menacing and hapless to his character. He is a master as chained to his own subservience as the pathetic wretch he constantly belittles and brutalizes, and to watch Jacobs ponder the proper way to sit on a chair or wrestle with whether he should smoke a pipe immediately after finishing one is to experience in three-dimensional form the tortured ruminations of T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrocks' hundred indecisions, visions and revisions. Finally, there is Garrett T. McDonald's Lucky, one of the more actor-unfriendly roles you can imagine. He spends the entire play yoked to Pozzo via a rope, and when he isn't painfully hunched over bearing Pozzo's possessions, he's being yanked, kicked, cursed and mocked by the other characters. However, in the moment when he comes to life and delivers a stream-of-consciousness monologue straight out of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, he is absolutely mesmerizing, expressing a thousand words without saying anything at all.
That monologue may be the strangest occurrence in Godot. Though often misread as a play "about nothing," there is always something happening onstage, even if that something is merely waiting. The way Beckett parses his language, though not quite as rigidly economic as in his later plays, is Godot's one stylistic through-line. But Lucky's monologue shatters that rhythm; it's a violent ejaculation of words, one that, as McDonald's breathtaking vomit skillfully demonstrates, is as carefully orchestrated as the rest of Beckett's play.
It's great stuff and just one of the reasons this is such a satisfying Godot. Hunger Artists' take possesses all the pathos and bathos (read: serious and funny) of Beckett's script, but it churns with an inner life that makes this play about sucking air on this sad bitch of an earth seem almost a most honorable task.
This review ran in print as "Great Godot: Hunger Artists’ take on the Beckett masterpiece strikes the perfect balance of pathos and bathos."