Waiting for Godot is Samuel Beckett’s most famous play. As a cultural reference point, it’s most often invoked because of its dense symbolism and avant-garde impermeability that encourages scholarly study. However, the script is billed as a tragicomedy, and the largely neutral dialogue can become extremely funny in expert hands. In the production currently at the Abreact, directors Adam Barnowski and Andrea Smith demonstrate that a play can sparkle with easy humor and simultaneously trigger and engage with a plethora of intellectual questions that run as deep as the artists and viewers care to dig.
Beckett’s allegorical style, the ubiquity of this play, and every possible contextual hint ensure it is no spoiler to assert that Godot does not appear. Still, true believers Vladimir (Stephen Blackwell) and Estragon (David Schoen) meet at the same depressing anti-landmark each evening — in part genuinely hoping that today will be the day, in part fearful that the one day they don’t make this appointment is the day that he will. In other locales and at other parts of the day, they speak of being beaten by anonymous passers-by and tuck away vegetables to eat; they may be persecuted, they are always close to starving. On stage, however, they wait with loyalty but not too much reverence, casting about for ways to pass the time and batting around unfulfilled plans to escape their obligation. Their complaints change little from one day to the next (the first and second act entail two consecutive evenings), and the company is similarly unaltered: each day, they make the acquaintance of Pozzo (Dave Davies) and his maltreated servant, Lucky (Lance Alan); each night, a Boy (Sarah Galloway) appears on Godot’s behalf to pass on excuses for today and promises for tomorrow.
The production elements play with the concept of forgotten rural outpost, stamping its barren landscape with sour vestiges of humanity. Scenic and lighting design by Eric Maher triumphs in a veritable elephant’s graveyard of discarded footwear that telegraphs the passage of time with exquisite sadness. The few noticeable cues call attention to their own abruptness, denying the characters — and, by extension, the audience — the diversion of watching the surroundings change. The overall effect works in concert with the script, the characters’ failure to recognize this place from day to day, by playing up the differences of a changing landscape, highlighting the stark contrast to the protagonists’ despondent sameness. Barnowski and Smith’s staging toys with the constraints of the theater space, consciously drawing out the contrasts between the supposed vastness of the country and the walls and people surrounding them. Costume design is thoughtfully conceived to fit the tone, from the growing filth on Estragon’s bare feet to the gaudy opulence of Pozzo’s jacket. Incidental music focuses more on appropriate lyrics than setting a mood, using even this opportunity to inquire and examine.
Thematically and academically, the production is carefully pondered and rich, but it’s the performers who spin gold from its dire and intentionally static premise and breathe life into its humor. Schoen and Blackwell are like a codependent comedy team, the former maximizing his despair at every little injury, the latter an exceptionally flawed ringleader and decision maker. A particularly fruitful choice in this staging is the pronunciation of the name “Godot”; there’s the right way and the way we say it in America, and who uses which is a telling and insightful detail. As the bellowing, self-satisfied slave driver Pozzo, Davies positions himself at every turn to best maximize his show of wealth; Alan brings a vicious physicalization to the oppressed Lucky that never wavers. Galloway’s Boy combines a child’s precociousness and fear of strangers, forcing the viewer to question whether he might really be a stranger to the protagonists. The ensemble does excellent work, but this show rests on the shoulders of its core duo, and Schoen and Blackwell are more than up to the intricacies of the characters’ beliefs and limitations that relegate them to repeat their disappointing history.
With a running time close to three hours and a single intermission, Waiting for Godot isn’t a cakewalk of a theater experience. Not everyone will have the patience for so much repetition and contemplation, but those up for the challenge will be rewarded in equal measure, both in laughter and in philosophy. Viewers who were unmoved when forced to read the play for school should be advised that this is a show infinitely better in performance than on paper, and the Abreact production is worth a look for its capable demonstration of Beckett’s earthly comedy and heavenly abstraction.