Our daily lives consist of moving from here to there and back again day after day after day. Our greatest literary works are about great journeys (Beowulf, The Odyssey, Cannonball Run). In contrast, the two central characters in Samuel Beckett's 1956 play Waiting for Godot are unable to leave the inhospitable place they're stuck in. They desperately want to move, go, do something, anything. But they can't. They're waiting for the mysterious Mr. Godot and will continue to wait until he arrives.
It's the anti-road-trip play.
This sense of waiting can often be an oppressive experience onstage. While lots of things happen in this play—from boots being pulled on and off to the pondering of the futility of existence—the central characters don't do anything grand or ambitious. If the actors aren't captivating, Godot can be wearying.
That's not the case with this Godot, the debut production of the Renaissance Theatre Company. Starring Ron Campbell and Matt Walker as Beckett's comic tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, it's hard to imagine a more entertaining, hilarious Godot.Both are highly skilled, physically based actors whose hyper-creative imaginations have been given free rein to roam around the terrain of Beckett's play. They nail most of the slapstick comedy Beckett wrote (Godot is many things, among them an homage to such silent comedians as Buster Keaton, whom Beckett so admired), and they devise scores of their own bits—from constantly addressing the audience to miming a police pursuit.
But as funny as this production is, and as great an achievement as that may be (so often Beckett is approached with such reverence that his own comic brilliance is forgotten), there's something missing: depth. And much of that has to do with director Joan Schirle's concept, which turns this Godot into a play about characters trapped in an abandoned theater, actors who "valiantly and desperately try to make Something out of Nothingness," according to her director notes.
Beckett's countryside road is now a mostly bare theater. Lighting instruments litter the stage and are turned on and off by actors. Beckett's main scenic piece, a tree, is a large, movable painting.
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The concept should work, except that Beckett's play isn't just about characters stuck in a play—it's about all of us stuck on this sad bitch of an Earth. Too often, this production's focus on actors desperately trying to give shape to their own existence—while intriguing in its own right—misses the universal, timeless resonance of Beckett's uncompromising honesty.
The enduring poetic image of Beckett's script is contained in a line first delivered by Pozzo (Ollie Nash, who, along with the excellent Ron Choularton, who plays Lucky, rounds out the cast): "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."
The stark, chilling beauty of that line sums up this play's heavier aspects. It should deliver a roundhouse emotional blow. But we haven't been properly set up. The constant emphasis on laughs and the relatively narrow directorial focus undercut Beckett's profoundness. The brilliance of Godot is the balance between slapstick, even toilet, humor and existential crisis—the whole laughing into the abyss. And while there's plenty of laughter in this Godot, there's very little abyss. As a result, the full magnitude and richness of Beckett's play is rarely captured. But you'll sure laugh your ass off.
Waiting for Godot by the Renaissance Theatre Company at the Lyceum Space Theatre, Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 544-1000. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 8 p.m. Through June 11. $15-$25.