Waiting for Godot at Catastrophic: Life…On the Road to No-where
No one ever goes gentle into the night of Samuel Beckett. No one jumps in excitement at the chance to see one of his plays.
Calling his works “plays” is an oxymoron. They are bleak and dark, existential examples of depression at its best, pitch black in theme, and filled with repetition and habit writ large. They can be static and cold as marble, from a pair of lips reciting terrors of a remembered lifetime, to two old wizened wraiths living in garbage cans, to a preternaturally happy woman buried up to her shoulders in earth as she talks blithely about her life, to an old man who never speaks as he listens to tapes of his younger self.
Each of his plays becomes more moribund, less theatrical, and still as a tombstone. This is life as expressed by Beckett. Hope is crushed as you sit waiting to die. Birth is death.
And yet his first, Waiting for Godot (1953), now in a mesmerizing re-visitation from Catastrophic Theatre after ten years, reeks of life force. Certainly it has every theme he would later use. His tragicomedy is foreboding and dank, hopeless with anticipation, scatological as if this were man’s true nature, and full of motifs and refrains that constantly repeat. And yet.
It’s the “yet” that matters. Beckett once said that he wrote plays because he hated theater. His anti-dramas are now cemented in the theater canon. He would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Notice, he didn’t win for Drama.
That’s what makes Beckett Beckett. His language soars, Joycean and with more than a tinge of Shakespeare. He can silence an audience with a pungent turn of phrase, a cry from the heart. And he can make us laugh out loud, certainly here in Godot. (Catastrophic pronounces the title the way Beckett asks – God-oh, not Go-doh.) That change takes the mysterious man the tramps are endlessly waiting for into another ambiguous realm. Does Beckett mean God? The stranger they never meet is described by a visiting farm boy who appears as if in a vision as having a white beard who sits around doing nothing. Beckett famously said he didn’t know who Godot was. If he knew, he would have said so. Is the wily playwright playing with us? Well, sure. This is the father of all existential plays. Beckett didn’t end naturalism in the theater, but he gave it a solid kick in the ass and sent it sprawling.
Two tramps, Estragon (Charlie Scott) and Vladamir (Greg Dean), in their soiled and tattered clothes, await an arrival that never comes, so they fill the time with vaudeville shtick and silent film routines like taking off shoes and putting them on which recalls Keaton or Chaplin. They sing and dance badly, as if they once headlined in burlesque. Their constant squabbles, like an old married couple, sound of Laurel and Hardy. But Vladamir’s rants about the existence of life sound like no one but Beckett.
Director Jason Nodler, also at the top of his game, loves him some Beckett. He treats him with grand respect and elicits every ounce of nuance and mystery. The ebb and flow is masterful, as ennui leaps to childlike faith in what is to come, only to crash to earth in despair. Afsaneh Aayani’s minimal set design is faithful to Beckett’s bleak vision of a rock, a tree, a road; John Smetak’s lighting is atmospheric; and Macy Lyne’s redolent and tacky costumes conjure smells we don’t want to know.
Except for the boy (Mack Hutchinson), the excellent cast is the same from ten years ago. They have honed their characters sharp and keen. The two sad sacks are visited by rich bourgeoisie Pozzo (Kyle Sturdivant) who preens, sheds crocodile tears, rants and raves over mere pretext, and treats his slave Lucky (Troy Schulze) with sadistic contempt. As he is wont to do, Sturdivant eats up the meager scenery as if dining at Tony’s, but this time it fits his, shall we say, mean old capitalist opportunist. Schulze is phenomenal as hapless Lucky, delivering his knock-out nonsense aria with mesmerizing aplomb and breathless patter. He stops the show and receives the loudest applause of the evening. He deserves it.
At the top of their game, actors Scott and Dean are radiantly alive as the old bickering couple. Begrimed, Scott has earthy down to a science, and Dean’s hands fidget like aspen leaves when upset or on the verge of a breakdown. In a way Estragon is more grounded (he’s always sitting or sleeping on a rock) while Vladamir is more volatile and flighty and takes notice of nature. His depiction of twilight is another of this classic play’s highlights. It’s such a pleasure to watch these two pros at work. Their love of theater is infectious. When they stand on the dirt road at dusk, their shoulders and dirty faces slumped in disappointment after knowing once again that Godot is not coming, they look out at the audience – the “bog” they called it earlier – and slowly grasp each other’s hand. “Shall we go?” “Yes, let’s go.” They have said this mantra many times before. They look at us as if this is the first time they’ve stared into the abyss. Beckett’s stage direction is final. “They do not move.”
But life has not passed by for these survivors. These two have lived it. And tomorrow they will live it again. Even Beckett for all his nihilism leaves us all with a tiny glimmer of hope within the plodding, mundane routine of life. God, it’s all we have.