Thursday, November 7, 2013

A low-key intro to Godot

Gary Lydon and Gavan O'Herlihy as Estragon and Pozzo.

I wouldn't reckon that the Gare St. Lazare Players' production of Waiting for Godot (at Arts Emerson through this weekend) will light a fire under any passionate Samuel Beckett fan. The show is solid, I suppose, but only occasionally inspired - and adds little to the interpretive store that has accumulated around this pivotal 20th century text. What's more, its central performances are often too low in energy to compensate theatrically for the fact that, in the famous opinion of one reviewer, in Waiting for Godot "nothing happens - twice."

Of course that's just wrong; Godot is packed with incident - but it's all discursive incident.  (Yes, the play lacks a plot, but that's Beckett's point, that life lacks a plot; or rather that the plots we invent for it are all false.) But putting over the text's rambling, ruminative quality requires not only pinpoint direction but also high-energy presences - and trust me, Waiting for Godot can not only be harrowing, but laugh-out-loud funny. The ICA recently brought us a strikingly re-imagined version (from the Classical Theatre of Harlem) that was set in the wastelands of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and I caught a brilliant conceptual investigation of the text up at the Stratford Festival this summer. Even the ART scored, more or less, with its two versions. The play is more accessible, and easier to pull off, than people imagine.

Still, if there isn't much in the way of existential fireworks going on at ArtsEmerson, a diligent attention to detail is apparent throughout the production, as well as a few memorable moments from its Pozzo and (particularly) Lucky. Director Judy Hegarty Lovett has done her homework, and hits all of the key points you might find in a Cliff's Notes guide to the play with a steady hand.  And the production design, by Ferdia Murphy, is desolately lovely, with a haunting lunar motif (which cleverly refs, btw, the painting that was one inspiration for the play, below). As a gentle introduction to this masterpiece - a kind of "Godot 101," you could make a case for this version. Or at least that was my partner's response; a Beckett virgin, he went with me to check out what he imagined would prove a long, pretension-ridden slog because (basically) he felt he "had to." But somehow the play reached him.  After the curtain fell, he turned to me and said "Well . . . it's a brilliant play, isn't it."

Caspar David Friedrich's Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise
Yes, I responded, it is. But perhaps I know it almost too well to be moved by an average production of it. (I played Estragon myself years ago, and can still pretty much recite the lines along with the cast much of the time.) Do you really need to know the set up?  A country road. A tree. Nightfall. Two tramps (Vladimir and Estragon) who have long kept a daily appointment to meet a mysterious Mr. Godot - although Godot  never shows up, merely promising (again and again) that he may stop by tomorrow. A visit from a disturbing duo locked in a master/slave relationship. Various betrayals, small and large. Much bemused, bitter, tender, skeptical, hilarious and horrifying consideration of our imprisonment in the human condition.  And delivered between all the pratfalls, disappointments and double takes - perhaps the greatest statement of the case for existentialism, as well as its subtlest rebuke.

That's it.  And if you've never really thought through the ramifications of the loss of what Beckett calls "a personal God, with a white beard, outside time, without extension," the play could prove an eye-opener in philosophical terms.  Emotionally, though - well, few depths are sounded here by Conor Lovett's Vladimir or Gary Lydon's Estragon, who betray little passion over their predicament, much less each other (no, they're not gay, but their long partnership should immediately read as a damaged marriage of sorts).  Gavan O'Herlihy punches things up at first as an intriguingly charismatic Pozzo (he's usually far more of a gargoyle), and Tadhg Murphy is even better as his thinking "pig" of a slave, Lucky, whose moniker may not be as ironic as it sounds, and whose famous attempt at philosophy splinters into shards just as it should.  Still, Lovett and Lydon dominate the action, and too often they're nicely precise, but operating at too small a scale.  In this Godot, it's not that nothing happens; it's that nothing is really at stake.

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