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Monday, 1 July 2013

A Marvelous Irony: Nothing But Good Choices in Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver, designed by Theresa Przybylski

The Story: Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), wait somewhere, at some time, for the mysterious Godot - who never arrives. Didi and Gogo pass the time wondering what can be done, each time deciding... nothing.
From left to right: Brian Dennehy as Pozzo, Stephen Ouimette
as Estragon, Tom Rooney as Vladimir, Randy Hughson
as Lucky. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I agree with director Jennifer Tarver who disagrees with the old saying that Waiting for Godot is a play in which nothing happens, twice. The tramps, Vladamir and Estragon continually say, "Nothing to be done!", when in fact, as they never seem to realize, there is everything to be done. If they would only choose.

The philosopher Kierkegaard would have revelled in the delicious irony of watching Waiting for Godot, because the very act implies a chain of very distinct choices made - to put on the play itself, the choice of director, cast, and design and finally to go see it - about a play in which the inability to choose leaves the characters in perpetual limbo.

Brian Dennehy as Pozzo.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
.
It is this dilemma that should be instantly - if uncomfortably - recognizable to everyone who watches it. When one thinks of the sheer number of choices one makes every day - to get up at seven or eight, cereal or toast, red or blue shirt, drive or bike, turn left or right - it is a wonder any of us get out of bed at all. And when faced with choices that will irrevocably change something - declare bankruptcy or live in debt, live with or abort an unwanted pregnancy, medicate or put down a sick beloved pet - the consequences of choosing can be debilitating. Immobilizing. In a nutshell, this is one of the points of the play. A leap of faith, choosing despite the consequences and living with those consequences - only then can we move forward and get unstuck from limbo, and thus, according to Kierkegaard, reach our potential as sentient, humane beings.

This is not a hard concept, but phrases like "existential absurdism" have a tendency to immobilize potential audience members from seeing such a play. Another irony, since the ensemble of actors and creative team have done such a lovely job of making this play both comic and tragic, accessible, and beautifully sublime.

Randy Hughson as Lucky.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
.
The minimal set - a rock and a tree set on an undulating, ragged path - seems to float in the ether above the glossy black stage. There is a suspended orb - deliberately unclear (even to the characters) if it is the sun or moon - which swings mechanically into place to start and end the acts. Indeterminate vocal sounds whisper around the plays' edges. Each element is a deliberate choice, representing the perpetual indeterminate state of the tramps who reside there; the orb does not ascend to or descend from the heavens, it simply resets itself - time in this unknown place is suspended. Even when the tree sprouts leaves - otherwise a sign of life, of time passing, a signal to the tramps that things could change if they would choose so - the audience cannot know, if there were an act three, if the tree would have more leaves, or if it would have reset itself too and have none at all. In fact, the one brief moment, brilliantly staged by Ms. Tarver and Mr. Ouimette, which signifies the possible impact that choice could have - in which Estragon hesitates, and almost chooses to leave his boots in a different spot - should have everyone's inner voice crying "Noooooo!" That one moment, one feels, could have been the one small change that would change everything else.

The outstanding cast Ms. Tarver assembled are so generous and respectful to the other that the resulting whole is awe-inspiring. Mr. Dennehy's cruel Pozzo, representative of the devil himself, certainly demands the audience's attention as much as he does Didi and Gogo's, but he does not overwhelm the production; likewise Mr. Ouimette could play Estragon's comedic whining for camp, but he entirely disappears whenever Tom Rooney's Vladimir begins to wax philosophical.  In fact, the actor who threatens to steal the scenes he is in is the one with the least to say (until bidden). Randy Hughson plays Lucky as so pale, hobbled, misshapen and rasping, that pity for him may distract from the others on the stage. It would seem this is also a deliberate choice by the director and actor to draw attention to Lucky - who may been seen to be a symbol of our humanity, someone who has chosen, unwisely, to be slave to a devil.
Tom Rooney as Vladimir (left); Stephen Ouimette as Estragon.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.


Do not let indecision or the habit of seeing "safe" plays deaden your resolve; do not wait to see this production of Waiting for Godot. It continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 20th.

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