Category: Archive

Still ‘Waiting’

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The new staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s Church is advertised as the play’s “50th anniversary production,” a fragment of information that may strike a portion of the show’s audience with a bit of a jolt.
Can the Dublin-born Beckett’s taxing, endlessly controversial play, by now widely accepted as one of the modern theater’s truly seminal works, really have been around for fully a half-century? Or, viewed another way, doesn’t it seem as though it’s been a prominent part of the world literary gene pool forever?
It would be at one and the same time intriguing and frustrating to attempt to envision an ideal production of “Waiting for Godot,” but Alan Hruska’s staging, self described as having been “developed at the Actors’ Studio,” definitely isn’t it.
Vastly closer to the mark was the Gate Theatre, Dublin, version which came to Lincoln Center in 1996 as part of a season in which the Gate brought its productions of all of Beckett’s stage works to New York, except for one, which the playwright famously didn’t want staged.
The Gate’s superb actors, including Barry McGovern as Vladimir, Johnny Murphy as Estragon and Alan Stanford as Pozzo, delivered “Godot” in precisely what must have been the tones, shadings and rhythms which Beckett himself may well have “heard” in his head when he conceived the play, before actually committing it to paper.
As was sometimes his way of working, the playwright wrote “Waiting for Godot” in French and then translated it into English.
English, as spoken by fine Irish actors, seemed to be the absolutely flawless method of rendering the subtleties of what Beckett had written, which isn’t so surprising, considering that the play’s verbal melodies must have approximated what Beckett heard around him as he was growing up in Dublin’s Foxrock district.
Calling Hrushka’s leaden staging at St. Clement’s the play’s “50th anniversary production” is slightly inaccurate, since “Waiting for Godot” premiered in Paris in 1953, and then opened in New York in 1956.
The cast of the first Broadway production included E. G. Marshall and the great comic, Bert Lahr, who, in subsequent years, was fairly widely quoted as having admitted that he didn’t understand a word of Beckett’s play while he was appearing in it.
It could be said that the world has caught up with “Godot,” and that, as a result, clarity of intention is no longer a problem with which audiences must wrestle.
Clarity, to be sure, is never a problem in the new production at St. Clement’s. The trouble lies elsewhere, perhaps most lethally in the venture’s thudding lack of subtlety and of genuine insight.
Samuel Beckett is known to have been a fan of screen comedy, with particular emphasis on the films of the Irish-American vaudevillian Joseph Keaton Jr., better known as Buster.
Beckett’s affection for the screen antics of Buster Keaton, a brand of comedy often touched with sadness, can be seen through and through the course of “Waiting for Godot,” a work which contains more than one comic routine which could easily be lifted from the stage and dropped into any one of the silents Beckett admired so ardently.
If the Dublinesque cadences of the Gate Theatre “Godot,” directed by Walter Asmus, long Germany’s “approved” Beckett director, made the play sparkle and gleam in all its diamond-like brilliance, what the new production comes up with is mainly a kind of ethnic New Yorkiness, which doesn’t help the work’s effectiveness at all.
The Vladimir of Sam Coppola and the Estragon of Joseph Ragno, better known as “Didi” and “Gogo,” are as unsubtle as they are uninflected. The actors, known to one degree or another for the character roles they’ve played in film and on television, seem not to have found a key to Beckett’s essences, and, as a result, they trample the text like a pair of black bears invading a suburban garden patch in New Jersey.
Slightly better off are Ed Setrakian as Pozzo and Martin Shakar as Lucky, the master-slave duo who make two brief visits, once in Act I and the other in Act II.
Shakar in particular, as the broken, humiliated victim of endless enslavement, comes close to achieving the chillingly defeated aspects contained in Luck’s lines and actions, or at least suggested by them.
Setrakian’s Pozzo is well spoken and suitably pompous, but, in the end, lacks a measure of the heartlessness and opportunistic cruelty evinced by Stanford, and other, earlier actors who undertook the role.
Beckett wrote “Endgame” in 1957, just four years after “Godot,” and there are strong suggestions of that later study of mankind’s interdependence in the scenes involving Pozzo and Lucky. It’s tempting to wonder what Setrakian and Shakar would be like, should they ever happen to find themselves cast as Hamm and Clov in some future production of “Endgame.”
What Samuel Beckett has called for in “Godot” is a placeless place, a landscape most notable for its anonymity, or, in the words of St. Clement’s program, “a country road,” and “a tree.”
Kenneth Foy’s attractive scenic design features a larger-than-usual tree, resembling, to an extent, an exhausted redwood, stretching its leafless branches into the sky.
Behind the tree is a vast cyclorama of scudding clouds, and, when it appears, once in each act, the oversized moon is large enough, and bright enough, to suggest an undiscovered planet.
The overall effect almost suggests that Hrushka’s production is taking place somewhere on California’s Monterey Peninsula.
There is, at the heart of this staging, a sluggishness and an inertness, never more apparent than at one prolonged point in Act Two, when the director has all four of the play’s primary participants, Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky, lying prone on the stage floor.
Since three of the four actors are on the portly side, the long moment when they’re ranged flat-out on the production’s ground cloth is slightly reminiscent of a quiet moment in an alligator pit at an out-of-the-way Florida highway rest stop.
The worst thing about a “Waiting for Godot” production as listless as the one at St. Clement’s is that it may tempt young viewers, of which there were many at a recent preview, to think that Samuel Beckett’s play, arguably one of the greatest of our time, has aged badly and lost its relevance.
In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

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