Of all the modern masters of theater, Samuel Beckett probably offers a stage director the widest opportunity to invent meaning and, right along with it, the greatest potential for disaster. It's rare, even with the clearly coded map Beckett provided in his characters' dialogue, to find an utterly honest production of the playwright's work. And there's not a Beckett play in the bunch that suffers as much indignity as does Waiting for Godot. From postwar apocalypse to the death of God, everyone has an idea about what Godot means and who the mysterious Godot is. As for that rather perplexing second question, Beckett's answer was, "I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists. And I do not know if they believe he does or doesn't, those two who are waiting for him."
Of course, it's not always prudent to trust the words of a writer as intellectually slippery as Beckett. Infernal Bridegroom's current production of Waiting for Godot does trust his writing, though, and their version of the play is glorious because of it. Sparsely backgrounded by a long panel of white fabric that suggests the elliptical nature of the universe inhabited by the play's main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, this Waiting manages a masterful balance between quiet comedy and anxious desperation. Milk chocolate-colored dirt (the "country road" Beckett noted in his stage directions) litters the floor in a thick layer, its only punctuations a lifeless tree and a large, impervious boulder.
IBP's reward for staying true to Beckett's script is that in the performance, Vladimir and Estragon's interchange is simultaneously honest and poetic, qualities nicely illustrated by Jason Nodler's direction. Vladimir's worrying is counterpunched with Estragon's excitement and, often comically, his brief periods of slumber. What becomes clear in IBP's production is that Vladimir and Estragon are two guys, soiled and destitute, who really are just waiting.
Greg Dean, a Beckett veteran lauded for his portrayal of Hamm in IBP's Endgame last season, is Vladimir, the schedule-minded half of Beckett's odd couple. With his rubbery gestures -- looking for turnips and radishes in his coat pocket -- and his wiry grace, Dean creates a Vladimir who is both compelling and pitiful. And as Estragon, the flightier of the two Magritte-ishly outfitted characters (that his creations wore bowlers and dark suits was something Beckett was absolutely certain of), Charlie Scott illustrates the despair that waiting can provoke. "You should have been a poet," Vladimir tells Estragon after an especially shrill ranting session. "I was," Estragon answers, as he rolls over on the boulder for a nap, his privates left vulnerable through a hole in his raggedy trousers.
As they flail about during their waiting, Vladimir and Estragon get dirtier, hungrier and even a bit punchy. The arrival of the nasty Pozzo and his servant Lucky provides, just as Beckett designed it to, a break in the monotony. A slick, cigar-smoking gentleman, Pozzo is a wonder to the pair. Played by the wickedly amusing DeWitt Gravink, Pozzo is also a great, jiggling bowl of moral ineptitude: He grossly mistreats his servant-on-a-rope, Lucky, and casts large morsels of food onto the ground. One of this production's revelations is that everything Vladimir and Estragon eat comes from the ground -- whether it's a root vegetable or a leftover bit of chicken skin.
The first act, careful in its pacing (perhaps to a fault), lasts 90 minutes; after intermission, though, the dialogue picks up with a hysterical speed, a quality that fuels Estragon's further breakdown. Tired of waiting for the unknown, Scott screams and kicks like an infantile demon, unable to laugh away his despair. If you can't recall the last time you were uncomfortable in a theater -- and I mean uncomfortable because you were forced to think about something miserably relevant to your own life, not uncomfortable because you were being stuck by an unruly seat spring -- this scene will remind you. While Scott's performance is too forced in the first act, it resonates with despair at the top of the second. His ranting, and then Estragon's subsequent collapse, is really enough to make you cry.
The second act is filled with other fine moments, interest payments on the groundwork laid during the first hour and a half. Dean's Vladimir echoes Macbeth's world-weariness in his unwavering certainty that today, or tomorrow, or indeed the very next day, Godot will come. Gravink has managed, somewhat magically, to make Pozzo look physically smaller in Act 2 -- a metaphor for the character's sudden loss of sight. As Lucky, Joshua Kosoy offers a solid and long-suffering performance in a difficult part -- who, after all, really wants to be dragged around in a harness?
An evening with Beckett doesn't leave you chirping and ready to burst into song, but it can give an audience the chance to distill for themselves what the writer "meant" by his barren little play. Tired of the endless pestering from overeager theater people who were desperate to pin down the play, Beckett finally said of Vladimir and Estragon, "They and I are quits." Luckily, they're not quits with IBP. Infernal Bridegroom holds up Beckett's holy grail in Waiting for Godot, and theater is better for it.
Waiting for Godot plays through March 29 at the Zocalo Theater, 5223 Feagan, 935-2008.
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