Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
“Let's think of something to do while we're waiting
While we're waiting for something new to do.
Let's try to think up a song while we're waiting
That's liberating and will be true to you.
Let's think of something to do while we're waiting
While we're waiting 'til something's through.
You know it's really all right;
In fact, it's downright quite bright
To think of something to do
That's specific for you.
Let's think of something to do while we're waiting.”
- Fred Rogers © 2005 McFeely-Rogers Foundation
I wonder if Mister Rogers was thinking of Waiting for Godot when he wrote this song? It’s a pity Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) never heard it. It was running through my head continuously as I watched Anders Cato’s production of ...Godot at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
In my 5th grade drama class, we were split up into pairs and told to go find a two-person scene to rehearse and present. Janie Feldman and I went through some scripts and found this hilariously funny play with lots of two-person scenes. The writing was head and shoulders above anything else we had pulled off the shelf and we knew instantly that is was what we wanted to do. We ran happily and showed it to our teacher, who keeled over in an apoplectic fit.
The script, of course, was Waiting for Godot, and we were told in no uncertain terms that we were way to young and stupid to even begin to understand this play, let alone present a scene from it. We looked at it again. What was to understand? These two guys were out in the middle of nowhere waiting and while they waited they did and said funny things.
No, we were told, this was not a funny play.
Then why did it make us laugh?
You will be glad to hear that we were eventually allowed to rehearse and perform a scene from ...Godot. I have no memory of whether I was Vladimir or Estragon.
Waiting for Godot still makes me laugh. Of course Chekhov has me rolling in the aisles too – I am just that kind of weird theatre chick – but I am happy to report that it makes Cato laugh too, and many members of the audience I attended with. About a dozen of them got in their cars and went home at intermission – I assume they were the ones who weren’t laughing – but the rest of us enjoyed this fresh look at the world’s most over-analyzed play thoroughly.
I know there are many people out there who agree with my 5th grade drama teacher and believe that Waiting for Godot is a terribly deep and serious play which I am apparently still, forty years later, too dull and immature to understand. If that is what you believe then you are probably right. Luigi Pirandello, another inscrutable 20th century European playwright, wrote a play whose title Così è, se vi pare! is variously translated as Right You Are, If You Think You Are or It is So! (If You Think So). Either sentiment applies here. If you think ...Godot is a very complicated play, then that is what you will see, and then you may not like Cato’s take, which is much closer to my opinion that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Beckett stated clearly that this is a play about waiting. Waiting is an inevitable part of life, and, during the two and half hours we get to observe Vladimir (David Adkins) and Estragon (Stephen DeRosa) waiting for Mr. Godot, who doesn’t come, they take Fred Rogers’ advice and come up with various ways to pass the time. Some are games and songs of their own devising, and some are adventures thrust upon then when their space is invaded by the expansive Pozzo (David Schramm) and his retainer Lucky (Randy Harrison).
Beckett was an enormous fan of the early 20th century American vaudeville clowns – the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin. He cast Buster Keaton in his 1964 Film. And Bert Lahr played Estragon in the first U.S. production of ...Godot in 1956. Cato makes frequent visual references to these comics in Adkins and DeRosa’s physical actions and interactions. Lahr claimed he didn’t understand one word of the script, which Beckett translated himself from his native French. This production is based on the revised and heavily annotated script Beckett created for a 1975 Berlin production that he staged.
Cato and costume designer Jennifer Moeller have created Vladimir and Estragon as “tramp clowns” – Adkins’ Vladimir looks especially like Emmett Kelly, while DeRosa’s trench coat is an obvious homage to Harpo Marx. Like Harpo, both Adkins and DeRosa have endless gags in their pockets and tricks up their sleeves. And like the Marx Brothers in general, these two actors have a synchronisity of movement that comes from a close filial bond.
While Adkins and DeRosa have a close and loving relationship – like an old married couple they are in this together for the long haul – Schramm and Harrison* portray a very different dynamic. Pozzo is the master and Lucky (Oh, ironic name!) is the slave. Harrison plays the role with a look of death about him – he is made up to be both sickly pale and dark with bruises. His eyes rarely focus on anything or anyone. He makes you believe those suitcases weigh thousands of pounds. Pozzo has Lucky on a leash – a noose around his neck – and yet when he lets the rope go Lucky stays. Whether he does so because he wants to or because he is simply to physically tired and mentally beaten to run is a question, like many, many others, left unanswered.
Schramm, on the other hand, is hilarious and expansive in his dominion. His body language is exquisite and he uses it to convey much of Pozzo’s character that is left unexplored in the script.
This is actually the key element to Cato’s staging. These actors each know the character they are playing, they know who they are, even when Beckett has left things ambiguous. By staying true to themselves they create a believable world of waiting on Lee Savage’s white box of a set.
I loved the way the forced perspective of the set made Cooper Stanton as The Boy look ridiculously large for his short pants. In fact, while Stanton is not quite a man yet, he is no longer a boy, and his height and the imminent onset of adulthood add a special poignancy to the role of this timid child.
Beckett created a very spare canvas on to which many different ideas and scenarios can be sketched. So Savage has created a spare set which Jeff Davis has filled with clean light that leaves nothing hidden.
More on the Relative Value of Different Types of Theatre
Is Beckett’s work “great” theatre or a big load of hornswaggle? I have been having this mini-debate about what constitutes “great” theatre all summer, ever since I recommended The Ladies Man to which that gentlemen who replied stiffly, “Well, I have tickets to Othello” implying that people who considered French farce to be actual theatre had no taste whatsoever. I told him then that I liked both French farce AND Othello and saw no reason why my theatrical diet shouldn’t be as varied as my physical one. Man does not live on crème brulee alone, he must consume the lowly potato and the humble codfish as well.
Then the other day a friend stuck his head in my office and expressed his great delight at seeing A Flea In Her Ear – yet another déclassé French farce. I informed him of my previous conversation and reminded him that publicly expressing an enjoyment of French farce immediately marked one as a person of low morals.
He replied: “Well, I’d rather watch Feydeau than Chekhov” – referring to the previous Main Stage offering at the WTF, Chekhov’s Three Sisters. His implication was that Feydeau was accessible theatre, whereas Chekhov was for an exclusive clique of intelligentsia. This is a man with a Ph.D. by the way, while the earlier gentleman had no such academic credentials.
I like Feydeau AND Chekhov AND Shakespeare…AND Samuel Beckett. I CHOSE to see Waiting for Godot – in fact wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. Why? Because I think it is great theatre. I think Pinter is a big load of hornswaggle (and I think he knows it and he laughs all the way to the bank), but Beckett had something to say and he said it in a unique voice.
To me that is the difference between “great” theatre and run-of-the-mill – the playwright’s voice. Shakespeare and Chekhov and Beckett and Feydeau each spoke in clear, individual tones. You may not like their style and what they had to say, or you may not understand it, and you are certainly under no obligation to buy a ticket and sit through a production if that’s how you feel, but you cannot deny that they said it in a way that no one before or since has managed to do.
Waiting for Godot runs through August 23 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for anyone of any age - even 5th graders who mistakenly think its funny.
* I highly recommend Larry Murry's Interview with Randy Harrison as companion reading to this review and/or your visit to the BTF.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008