What a supremely difficult task it would be to make Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a theatrical catastrophe given the rich nature of the existentialism, the slap-stick comedy, the downright absurdism.
That said, what a trying undertaking it is to do complete justice to the text of Beckett’s mid-twentieth-century masterwork given the requirement for such keen delivery so often, the ironic complexity involved in minimalism, and – perhaps most riskily – the tendency to exaggerate the inherently dramatic roles of all of the characters
All three flaws plague Princeton’s current production of the tragicomedy – directed by Tim Vasen, a lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and the Program in Theater and Dance – at the Matthews Acting Studio in 185 Nassau.
This production of Godot features seniors John Doherty, Ben Mains, Jed Peterson and Paulo Quiros, who after performing in what seems just about every production of the theater and dance program, Theatre Intime, and the Princeton Summer Theater seem tiresome, weary, rubbing at the eyes in their gauche interpretation of this legendary play.
Whether it be in Chekhov’s The Seagull or in Haidle’s A Long History of Neglect, I’m tired of seeing these same actors play the same exact character in different dramatic works. Mr. Quiros, whose stage presence remains peerless at Princeton, plays Pozzo with the same affectation of all of his characters as he imposes his ego on his roles. Yes, Pozzo must be the domineering gourmet, the slave-driving, over-the-top person. Yet Mr. Quiros switch-hits for this role by transforming this arrogance into a completely new arrogance.
He strangely feels the thrust of homosexuality – at times latent, others flamboyant – in Pozzo’s character with dreamy eyes directed at Mr. Doherty as Vladimir and Mr. Mains as Estragon. He laughs giddily, crosses his legs, speaks from his stool on this country road as if Doris Day across a 5th Avenue parlor. Beckett wants pretension and superciliousness, and if Mr. Quiros wants to fatten his character up lest Beckett’s creation be too lean, I suggest he do it on his own time
The rules of theater are: play it as it lies, lie as you play it. These men need greater allegiance to the original text and intent of Beckett instead of riding on their dramatic high horses to add to a work best played in the minimal. And as such, in a play that centers around the absence of memory in so many of the characters, I wish my memory were defective so as to erase this ravishing of Godot.
In Godot, Beckett plays with the notion of the fourth wall in penchant for meta-theater – unceasingly calling attention to the fact that the play is indeed a play full of theatrical artifice. “Look at the slobber,” Estragon says, for example, implicating the squalor of the audience. This efficacious use of the text brings theater to its zenith in allowing the audience to become complicit in the play. But the meta-theater works only so long as a moment in the text calls for it, not with unnatural additions from these lackluster thespians.
Mr. Mains captures well the concentration on the insipid, the tedium and ennui of everyday life Estragon laments. But in the beginning when he tries to pull of his boot – such a fantastically unexciting human action that it could have been humorous – he implicates the audience with his eyes and shatters the fourth wall when unwarranted.
He becomes histrionic in his shrieks as he concerns himself with how the audience views him and not with the actual pain of his character.
Mr. Doherty’s interpretation of the Vladimir he plays becomes at once admirable and tragic – the former in the young man’s efforts, the latter in the faulty execution. He walks pigeon-toed around the stage in a half-limp, half ghetto strut. Yet, he loses character several times and jumps, saunters, appears his robust actual self.
When offstage and screeching from Vladimir’s kidney ailments, Mr. Doherty sounds more orgasmic than pained, more sordidly explosive than ill. Yes, he gives his all in his role, but has mannerisms, ticks, and movements too inconsistent. Mr. Doherty tries to give the impression of an old man, for example, but his varied strained face appears more a mouse than a geriatric, and other times a constipated duck.
Perhaps the actors and directors should not take all the blame, because the lack of definite instruction from Beckett leaves the play vulnerable to freedoms of the will of those now in possession of the text. But those who are vulnerable still are at fault. The director, most flagrantly, grips his masturbatory liberties with pride, though shame seems more appropriate.
For example, the tree that Beckett indicates for the scenery becomes a metal-piped job of puny phallic branches that, in lacking any sort of aesthetic beauty, make me want to kill myself – let alone the suicidal inclinations of Vladimir and Estragon.
But I suppose some sort of Yale Drama School inspired po-mo interpretation of Godot in scenery could find the industrialized properties of the tree as a symbol of suffocation, the hard state of life. But if we give the set designers such an excuse and explanation for their tasteless choices, then we can still not excuse the back wall whitewashed in a picket-fence-like structure reminiscent of Tom Sawyer’s antics. The ethereal “firmament” alluded to in the play becomes reduced to a pathetic, sloppy backdrop. The modern tree and the rural fence strike me as two aspects diametrically opposed, and even more we have to suffer the thin line of tape that demarcates where the stage ends, and more than theater enclosed here, I see a sport (perhaps basketball) boundary – slovenly, sweaty, careless.
Much like sport, this production centers around balls as the actors take every opportunity to accentuate the nonexistent phallic reference and play up the homoeroticism, especially between Vladimir and Estragon.
In my long list of grievances, I can cite the technical flaws of the production as too varied to classify, too numerous to name. When drinking from his wine bottle, for example, Pozzo slams the bottle down and water spills out in a little geyser of reality. Couldn’t the director have arranged for a little grape juice?
And the gold watch on the little farm boy? How can this bling be justified in a play in which the jewelry stands more brilliant than any of the performances?
If one could say anything nice about the actors, a critic could make mention of their supreme enjoyment of their roles. But they get so excited, so elementarily giddy in their roles that they come out of character – limp after jumping Vladimir and Estragon, speak like a plebian when first waxing arrogant in the case of Pozzo.
Lucky is played by Mr. Paterson with flawless pantomime and a mind-numbing, exhausting, and impressive soliloquy. But minor successes cannot make up for the string of foibles in the production.
“Christ have mercy on us!” Vladimir says toward the end of the play, expressing my sentiments exactly about the bastardization of a play I hold so dearly.
Like Vladimir and Estragon, we the audience are left waiting for some idealist God with a white beard to save us – not from our boredom – but from the fatal decisions made in this unfortunate production.