Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Waiting for FEMA

Waiting for Godot as staged in New Orleans.

"If no one walks out," Samuel Beckett once told the American producer of Waiting for Godot, "then you're doing it wrong."

Well, no one walked out of the Classic Theatre of Harlem's production at the ICA last weekend - but were they nonetheless doing it "wrong"? One wonders if Beckett himself might have thought so; set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with its central pair of tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (or "Didi" and "Gogo") played as homeless African-Americans, the question of racism hung over the production, and was indeed perhaps its raison d'être. Yet Beckett (below left) had been clear all his life that he did not want the question of racism entangled with the master/slave relation his masterpiece ponders. Indeed, he once attempted to stop an A.R.T. production of Endgame that in his mind "mixed" the races inappropriately.

Why did he feel that way? Perhaps because opposition to racism provides too easy an answer to the questions his work raises; Beckett's view of enslavement is one of relentless inquiry, and genuinely frightening dimension. Indeed, in the world of Godot, the question of freedom and slavery is a kind of universal, open-ended dilemma. The tramps Didi and Gogo not only watch as a horrid parody of the master-slave relationship plays out before them (in the persons of the brutal Pozzo and his lackey Lucky), but then play-act at the same dialectic themselves; and what is their bond to the mysterious, unseen Godot, whom they faithfully obey, but one of self-willed slavery? Indeed, when one ponders their existential melancholy, and their pathetic gropings at suicide, one begins to wonder whether the name of the debased, but single-minded Lucky is really "ironic" after all; perhaps, Beckett is whispering, he's the lucky one.

So once literal, political slavery becomes the context of Godot, existential slavery, its true subject, is easily obscured. Still, the wonder of the CTH production last weekend was that it often managed to keep both themes in view - indeed, unlike that A.R.T. Endgame, this version seemed to respect its text, and at times honestly grappled with the contradictions of its own concept.

Designer Troy Hourie's model for the Godot set on tour.

And as a backdrop for the blasted waste the play conjures, post-Katrina New Orleans of course could not be beat. Originally, the production played out in the open air on that city's desolate streets; in New York, Didi and Gogo crouched on a rooftop, surrounded by three feet of water (with Lucky and Pozzo entering by boat!). Alas, the ICA wasn't flooded last weekend to accommodate that particular theatrical coup, but the touring set (above) effectively conjured the Gentilly section of New Orleans, one of the production's original venues (above), and included such nice touches as a Calvary-esque trio of telephone poles to echo the tramps' banter about Christ on the cross. There were other flashes of inspiration: the re-imagining of Pozzo as some lost bushwhacker, broadcasting his commands through a bullhorn, was a stroke of genius, as was the long, disturbing sequence in which the black Lucky silently did his white master's bidding - a once-common American scene willfully edited out of our national consciousness.

Still, powerful as these sequences were, they amounted to an exploitation of Godot for other, worthy political purposes (much as Susan Sontag had done years before in Sarajevo). For in the end, Didi and Gogo aren't waiting for physical rescue, and if, as Beckett insisted, Godot isn't God, then he certainly isn't FEMA. Perhaps as a result, director Christopher McElroen's staging trailed off inconclusively whenever Godot's messenger actually made an entrance (he even appeared to be voiced by the stage manager!). In other ways, however, McElroen seemed to be grappling with some of the issues his concept raised; his Didi and Gogo, for instance, passed the time by trying to play basketball, or imitating Michael Jackson, or indulging in little raps - clichéd gestures of "black" pop culture that the production seemed to be hinting were essentially meaningless before the larger questions facing African-Americans.

This was perhaps the most politically unsettling idea in the show; but the audience tended to take these interludes as a relief from Beckett's bleakness, which undermined their subversive impact. Still, as Didi, the versatile Billy Eugene Jones always seemed aware of these underlying ironies, even if the production didn't seem to know how to make the leap from the political to the spiritual. As Estragon, the talented J Kyle Manzay was more problematic; always amusing, his Gogo was a distant, self-aware comic with little connection to the seeming despair of his situation. And both took a back seat to Pozzo and Lucky whenever they stumbled onstage. Christian Rummel's Pozzo was perhaps the best performance of the role I've seen, with a highly original emphasis on the character's weakness, while Glenn Gordon's Lucky was probably the most disturbingly debased (although it's too bad director McElroen pulled his big breakdown toward rap). When these two took the stage, this Godot held a power that wasn't quite what its author intended, but didn't betray his intentions either.

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