Waiting for Godot
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
November 29, 2005
It's an exciting prospect to see the 50th anniversary production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a very well-known but not very often produced play—especially since the first production had such an impact on modern theatre that the play is considered by many to be a turning point in contemporary drama. It is a disappointment that this production at the Theatre at St. Clement's is not in the same spirit of daring and originality.
Vladimir and Estragon, who call each other Didi and Gogo, respectively, are two souls who could be anyone and who are nowhere. They come to the same desolate spot by a dead tree every day to wait for Godot. It is not explained who Godot is or why they are waiting. They fill up their time with childish games, share their meager supply of carrots and radishes, and start the next day the same way. Estragon often has to be reminded by Vladimir that they were there the day before. They encounter two men; a slave owner named Pozzo and his chattel, Lucky. They are also met by a Boy who delivers the message that Mr. Godot will not come today but he will tomorrow. The significance of these characters and their meanings are wildly open to interpretation and this review is not the place to try, but if you are interested, John Fletcher's book Samuel Beckett's Art (Barnes and Noble, 1967) is a great resource.
The cast, except for Tanner Rich as the Boy, is made up of seasoned Broadway actors. Sam Coppola as Vladimir and Joseph Ragno as Estragon are a perfect match physically. Coppola is big and slump-shouldered, carrying the weight of the world with resigned soft humor and Ragno is short and fast moving, lashing out while Coppola lumbers. Unfortunately, Alan Hruska's direction does not make enough of this, and instead gives questionable motivations to the actors.
The pair would be an ideal comedy duo if Coppola's Vladimir was not resigned in such a satisfied way. It feels like he could wait for Godot or not—it doesn't really matter because he's basically okay with his lot. As a result, Ragno's Estragon does not have much to lash out against or a reason to stay and wait. That may seem in keeping with a play where "nothing happens," but the comedy lies in the enormous effort of attempting something that results in futility. That is also why the silent hat-switching and pratfall vaudeville routines are unsuccessful. They are pulled off easily, with no effort but with no payoff either. Ed Setrakain as Pozzo works well as a despicable man who later turns up blind in the second act, but the real standout is Martin Shakar, as the slave Lucky. His portrayal of a man tied to another man but who won't free himself is heart breaking, pathetic, and disturbing. You feel terrible for him and don't want him near you.
The set designed by Ken Foy has the requisite tree and bare landscape but with the neat touch of a painted circular playing space that looks like a view of Earth from a satellite. It makes one think that the characters could be any of us spending our time on this planet. The costumes by Ann Hould-Ward are not as original, using the Laurel and Hardy-esque baggy pants and bowler hats that have become identified with the play.
Waiting For Godot changed our expectations of what theatre can address in ways that are now taken for granted. Beckett was the first to experiment with how much he could strip away from theatrical conventions while retaining the essence of drama. In this production, all that we are familiar with—the hobo costumes, the banter, and the silent vaudeville routines—are there, but with the exception of Shakar, there seems to have been no attempt to find a greater meaning in the text. It's really too bad that the play's signature line "nothing to be done" has been taken so literally.