Anyone who says they fully understand exactly what “Waiting for Godot” is about might have taken too many drugs in the 1960s.
Samuel Becket’s two-act play, which opened on Broadway in 1956 and has been produced far and wide ever since, is on the bill at the Bruka Theater, with performances this month and in October. Despite its absurdist bent, it has become a classic that is challenging for any theater company.
The initial Broadway production was directed by Herbert Berghof. The stars were Bert Lahr, playing Estragon, and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir. These two characters spend their time on a road, waiting for a fellow named Godot. Lahr’s performance as Estragon is considered a comic vaudevillian work of art.
OK. But I still don’t get it. What, exactly, is the play about? I asked an expert.
Should they stay or should they go?
I reached out to director/actor Austin Pendleton, who, in 1978 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, played Estragon alongside Sam Waterston as Vladimir. That production was overseen by Becket and directed by Beckett’s assistant, Walter D. Asmus.
“I think it’s a play about two guys who are standing by the side of a road, waiting for a man named Godot,” Pendleton said. No argument there.
“In the course of this waiting, they meet a tyrannical man and his babbling eloquent slave,” he continued. “And a boy keeps telling them, every evening, that Godot will come tomorrow night. When alone with each other, these two guys pass the time by playing word games and speculating about whether to hang themselves or not.
“I think that’s what the play is,” Pendleton said. “No more than that, but no less.”
“Waiting for Godot” written by Samuel Beckett and directed by Holly Natwora. Julia Butler is the assistant director Evening performances continue at the Bruka Theater Sept. 16, 17, 18, 29, 30 and on Oct. 1 and 2nd, with curtain at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are scheduled Sept. 12, Sept. 19 and Oct. 3, with curtain rising at 2 p.m. Tickets: Senior/Student/Military $28; advance general admission, $30; all tickets are $32 at the door. All tickets are $17 on Artist Night (Sept. 29). The Sunday, Oct. 3 matinee will be followed by a talk-back with the company. Masks and proof of vaccine are required for all patrons.
The Bruka’s production
Holly Natwora, who is directing “Godot” at the Bruka Theatre, said it is her all-time favorite play. The older she gets, the more she gets it.
“This iconic play challenges it’s audiences to confront life’s most difficult questions while searching for meaning in a world in which nothing is certain,” according to the Bruka’s summary. “Written after witnessing the horrors of World War II, Beckett creates a universe in which his characters face the appalling nature of Man at his most base as they struggle with their sense of self and search for salvation from a god that may not exist.”
Beckett, however, once said that Godot was not God. He said if he was, he would have called him God and not Godot.
“Godot” is sometimes called an existential work, not unlike John Paul Sarte’s “No Exit” or Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” where people are passing time waiting, but nothing of substance really happens. What the characters do with their time is the question. Is this play about Man’s search for meaning or lack thereof?
Natwora believes the “true meaning of ‘Godot’ is that compassion is the only thing that gives life meaning.” Initially, she wanted to cast two women as the main characters. She had two women in mind who were “really good clowns.”
But Becket’s estate does not allow for gender substitutions. He once remarked that “women do not have prostates,” a reference to one of the characters frequent trips offstage to empty his bladder. The medical reason for his condition isn’t mentioned in the play.
I saw the play in a preview, outside of the official run, so it was the cast’s first shot at connecting with an audience.
‘An actors’ play’
Natwora said she has, “control issues” and they were apparent in the production. The actors are directed so tightly, their movements on stage so firmly blocked, that Natwora’s hand is everywhere.
With this play, I saw that as a problem. Godot is often considered an actors’ play, almost a blank slate, which allows the two main characters to come up with all sorts of comedic behaviors while they are waiting for the missing man to appear. It is a tragic/comedy, but because the Reno production is so tightly staged, I found that the essential comedic core of the piece often gets lost.
There is no sense that these characters are waiting for Godot, except when the lines tell us that they are. It might have helped for the actors to consider what they would be doing on the side of the road, while waiting, when they had no lines to say. Some freedom for the actors to improvise their character’s behaviors would have been a plus.
That’s not to say the cast members are completely stifled. Myron Freedman as Estragon finds all sorts of humor on stage. Freedman takes his time and listens to the other actors, but does not stretch for laughs. His behavior gets them. Freedman makes Estragon sympathetic – the audience believes he is genuinely bewildered by all that is going on.
Chip Arnold as Vladimir, though, seems boxed in, perhaps by the tight direction. His stage presence seemed odd to me; he spends the time with his mouth open. He screams his lines. He seems to be in a different play than everyone else.
At the same time, Arnold is quite comfortable on stage and makes the roadside setting real for the audience. It’s obvious he genuinely cares about Estragon.
An engaging villain
Joel Barber is Pozzo, the cruel tyrant who wields a whip and walks with another man (Lucky) who is tethered to a rope. Pozzo happens upon Vladimir and Estragon on his way to a fair. He stops to spend some time with them, while he eats his lunch and chats with the two starving main characters, who covet his food.
Barber was on target. He is playing an evil character, but somehow comes off as charming. He managed to grasp the lack of caring for the other characters in a spellbinding performance that defines narcissism. Barber also found the humor in the play, a relief from the tedium of the characters’ waiting.
The Bruka is a small gem of a theater, and so the stage isn’t large enough to accommodate the lone, leafless tree that marks the place of the tramps’ hoped-for rendezvous with Godot. No problem. The production presents the skeletal willow in silhouette and masterful lighting changes produce the effect of a day slowly passing.
So, in the end, what is Beckett telling us? Is “Godot” about hope or despair; nothing or everything? Why has this work remained so popular for nearly 70 years? To find out, one must spend a part of an evening (or, two, from the characters’ point of view) on that lonely roadside.
Reviewer Carol Schaye studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Austin Pendleton, and playwriting with Salem Ludwig.