Gogo’s feet stink. Didi reeks of garlic. And, no, Godot never does show up. These are three unassailable facts about Samuel Beckett’s maybe and maybe not absurdist Waiting for Godot, which opened Friday night in an itchy and morosely funny revival from the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative. Otherwise, the play’s so open to interpretation that actors and academics, after a drink or three, have been known to break out in fisticuffs over its meanings.
Is it a comedy or a tragedy? (Beckett called it, in its English version, a “tragicomedy”). Is it Christian, or existentialist, or something else? Is Godot really God, or simply an absence, or perhaps both? Is the play snarly, like Pinter, or sympathetic, like Wilder, or something entirely its own? Godot is a bare architecture, sparse and clean in the making, free-floating and yet fiercely rooted, and as it lacks particulars of time and place and even intention, it’s a play for all seasons. Lay over it what you will: you might be right.
I happen to be of the baggy-pants school: I see in Godot ripples of the English music hall and American vaudeville and the great early movie comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Max Linder, and, closer to the time that Godot was written in 1949, Jean-Louis Barrault, the great sad mime from 1945’s Les Enfants du Paradis. As great clowns tend also to know the deepest hearts of innocence and tragedy, Godot for me is perhaps the most pristine of all stage comedies. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite: the thing can seem a little overstated and pretentious, and it can drag on, depending on how it’s done. It does mean it’s a benchmark.
With so much loosey-goosey going on in the philosophical and meditative dimension, it strikes me that the best course in directing and acting in the play is to keep your head down and stick to the particulars – whichever particulars you choose. Let the interpretations fly above your head: you couldn’t stop them if you wanted. Move, as Didi and Gogo do, from moment to moment, concentrating on the physical, on the immediate reaction to an immediate stimulus. The rest will take care of itself. Sure, they’re in it for the long game – Didi especially, who every day insists they must return to their tree to wait for the notoriously unreliable Godot – but in the short run, their lives aren’t spiritual, they’re a series of physical responses to physical prompts. The body takes precedence over the soul: It’s tough to keep your eye on God when your feet ache or your bladder won’t behave.
Under the savvy direction of the veteran Pat Patton, Don Alder as Gogo (or Estragon) and Grant Byington as Didi (or Vladimir) play up the physical comedy and stay very much in the moment. Both also seem ready for their roles, which, like Hamlet and Prospero and Malvolio, are ones that adventurous actors at certain points in their careers long to put on and take for a spin. Alder in particular settles deeply into the role: his opening scene moaning about his fetid feet is hugely funny without taking things over the top, and sets the tone for what’s to come; and he and Byington quickly establish an Odd Couple bickering sympatico that keeps things fresh and lively.
The tiny Shoebox Theatre, which squeezes in about 40 seats for this production, plays a crucial supporting role, and Patton smartly takes advantage of its intimacy to turn the show into a highly visual spectacle. As at the movies, the actors’ bodies and faces and even their smallest of expressions become crucial tools: the sense for the audience that it’s all happening just a finger’s-reach away amps up the possibilities and changes the relationship from observer to near-participant. Alder and Byington take full advantage, building their characters at least partly simply on the way they look. Alder conveys a sunken charm, his handsome face gone a little puffy and lined, his belly a bit extended, his attitude apt to leap from grateful and clinging to peevish in a snap. Gogo’s not quite grown up, or maybe just a little thick: he’s unreliable, and Alder reliably portrays him so, always on the edge of eruption. As Didi, Byington suffers his own physical complaints, but is the adult of the duo, in the same raw circumstances as Gogo but capable of a longer view, of planning and hoping and keeping a kind of faith. He is, for all his filthy clothing, more refined, and gentler, and resolute: Byington’s facial expressions tilt upwards, his wrinkles rising in acceptance and surprise. His Didi will take care of things.
They are ably supported by Todd Hermanson, all bluff and gleaming of pate as the suave and cynical slave-driver Pozzo, who returns in the second act blinded and pitiable, his memory apparently as erased as his capabilities; by Steve Vanderzee as Lucky, Pozzo’s slumped and pitiable slave, who is nevertheless capable of great outbursts of emotion and intellectual declamation; and by Eric Lyness, who walks on twice as the Boy, Godot’s messenger, who is tremulous and innocent, the sole virgin in a sullied land.
One of the beauties of Godot is that its openness makes it adaptable to any number of social, historical, and political circumstances. This struck me forcibly in the second act, when Pozzo is flailing on the ground, crying feebly for help, and Didi launches into an interminable declamation on the philosophical parameters of the situation and what, precisely, can or should be done. The inescapable, for me at least, parallel is the West puzzling and arguing and delaying while Syrian refugees flee and plead for help. Next year, 10 years from now, it’ll be something else.
As pliable as it is intellectually, Godot is also an open book for actors and directors, who can build their characters from the briefest of commands. A million little turns can be taken, some of them no doubt not invented yet, and so every production will be in vital ways different. At times in the second act I felt the oratory taking over, and wished for things to slow down a bit and slide back into the physical. But on the whole this is a deft and appealing production, smart and self-assured and entertaining, and taking full advantage of the theater’s forced intimacy.
It’s also a beautifully assembled show. Jessica Bobillot’s grungy costumes (assisted by Alanna Hylton) are wonderfully ragged; threadbare and deeply soiled, with the inevitable jaunty topping of bowler hats lending a speculatively raffish past to the characters’ down-and-out lives. The talented Jeff Forbes lights everything with the subtlest touch, and Tim Stapleton’s set is a masterwork of minimalism, dominated by a driftwood-built tree that sweeps back on itself like a Japanese ukiyo-e print or a stylized Arts & Crafts stained glass window or a coastal scrub pine braced against the wind, and which creates ample space for the actors to roam around. Sharath Patel’s sound design is sure but subtle, a quietly insinuating and almost silent partner: like the play itself, it’s almost not there.
And that, as it turns out, is a good thing.
Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative’s Waiting for Godot continues through October 11 at the Shoebox Theater, 2110 Southeast 10th Avenue. Ticket and schedule information are here.