On Saturday evening (April 14) I saw the Lincoln Land Community College Theatre Department’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at Theatre in the Park, New Salem. I don’t normally review plays, but Godot is a work that you need to see and also read if you are to get the most out of it.
I must confess that I am biased here, since I have been an adjunct at Lincoln Land for 30 years; however, I am genuinely excited about what Lincoln Land is doing under the guidance of Assistant Professor Mark Hardiman. Local productions directed by Hardiman include Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Hardiman’s latest selection is a tough play to work with for any number of reasons. Samuel Beckett is one of those writers / playwrights whose meanings are sometimes hidden and whose interpretations can be as varied as the people in the audience. The play, first produced in the 1950s, is billed as “existential.” This, as everybody knows, means “over my head.” Some refer to the play as “intellectual.” This, of course, means ‘boring.’
In truth however, it is not over anybody’s heads nor is it boring. Yes, there are many religious and philosophical allusions, but you will catch more of them than you might think and you can worry about the others later (or not). The immediate experience of Godot, if you give it a chance, will touch your heart as much as your head. The thoughts and emotions you experience may be more familiar than you ever thought possible (or ever want to admit).
The setting is very simple: a country road with a tree. Two characters appear who bring to mind hoboes—or in any event people whose lives are on a downward spiral. They meet beneath a tree to keep a promised appointment with someone named Godot. Their names are Vladimir –“Didi”—and Estragon – “Gogo”. They aren’t quite sure, however, whether they are in the right place or whether they even have the right day and time. Nothing in their lives is certain. But they wait. And while they wait they try to find ways to pass the time.
Two others later join them: one, a baronial and nearly insufferable man named Pozzo who is full of himself and who torments his slave, “Lucky.” The clearly mis-named Lucky carries Pozzo’s bags, is frequently subject to abuse, and is always at his master’s beck and call. While the master eats chicken, Lucky gets the bones. This strange encounter leaves Didi and Gogo wondering who, or what, they have just experienced. It may leave the audience wondering the same thing, especially as Didi and Gogo begin to identify with the two characters.
In two acts (each act lasting approximately one hour) we watch Didi and Gogo struggle with issues of incontinence, doubt, fallible memory, bad dreams, and personal clashes as they wait—only to face disappointment when the mysterious Godot fails to materialize. They contemplate suicide. But, in the end, they remain together to wait another day.
There is slapstick and there are pratfalls—this is a very physical comedy reminiscent of some of the finest burlesque routines that inspired it. One observer Saturday evening likened Didi and Gogo to Laurel and Hardy. Not a bad analogy. But all is not funny in this play. Hardiman coached his actors in some seemingly brutal scenes that are carried off with shocking realism (in addition to being an acting teacher, Hardiman is a fight choreographer).
The performances by the young cast members are amazing, given the odd nature of the script and its physical demands. Andrew James O’Shea is truly insufferable as Pozzo, the wealthy landowner with a briar and a whip who is used to getting his way. Lucky, played by a near spectral Cody Cochran, manages to recite one of the longest and most convoluted soliloquies ever written when he is ordered to “think” for the entertainment of them all. This is truly one of the most bizarre scenes ever to be written for the stage. Cochran deserves a Golden Globe for making it through it. Warning: don’t try to make sense of this soliloquy. Just endure it.
The standout performances belong to Didi and Gogo. Wesley Tilford’s “Didi” experiences problems with incontinence, but provides a dryer grounding for the more vulnerable Gogo. On Saturday, Tilford spoke a bit too softly at times in the first act and a few great lines were tossed (although, in fairness, even with microphones the acoustics are a bit of a problem depending on where an actor is standing). But he projected more strongly in the second act and it made all the difference. In the last scene, his frustration and anger explode as he realizes that he has once again waited for an appointment that will not be kept. It is a powerful moment that makes you sit up and pay attention. There is fire in him.
Perhaps the most endearing performance was that of Trent Rossi, whose Gogo projects a John Goodman quality. His expressions at times scream for someone, anyone, to hug him, and more than once he plucks your heartstrings. Yet, he can go from dejected to angry on very short notice, as he does when a messenger (played softly by 13-year old Devon Swafford) comes to tell the two that Godot can’t make it after they had waited the whole evening. Rossi is a talented young man who seems to lose himself in his portrayal (which can’t be easy to do, considering the nature of his character).
Professor Hardiman explains one of the more important aspects of Godot in his playbill notes. “Beckett parades metaphors past us like a lugubrious carnival parade,” he writes. “Each is passing in its significance and unsatisfying. What is lasting is…a bond between man and man which leads us on.”
This bond is evident between Didi and Gogo, even at times when they wonder if they wouldn’t be better off if they parted. On two occasions, Gogo—exhausted by his maltreatment and the awful reality of his life—falls to sleep. Didi takes off his coat, covers him up, and gently rubs Gogo’s shoulders. Then, without his coat, Didi shivers and hugs himself to stave off the chill of the evening.
You don’t need to be a PhD to appreciate the essential humanity in this. It is truly touching.
If you like the play, then pick up a copy of the play and read it. You pick up things that way that you might not catch otherwise. For example, the word “to-morrow” is hyphenated, just as it is in Macbeth’s famous soliloquy (“To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.”) where the bard expresses a tedium not unlike that experienced by Didi and Gogo as they wait…and wait…and wait.
I admire what Mark Hardiman was able to pull off here with a very difficult (and frequently unappreciated) vehicle, and I look forward to many more fine productions and performances. His vision is to make theatre the heart of the community—a vision I wholeheartedly endorse.
This production will continue next weekend with performances on April 20 (Friday) and 21 (Saturday) at 8 PM at the theater at New Salem.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012