Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Monmouth College Does Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT

Monmouth College Crimson Masque production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Feb. 28 to Mar. 1, 2008

A few weeks ago I had the chance to catch a PBS American Masters program on the life of Pete Seeger. It was a glorious trip down memory lane, but one item from the TV show stuck in my mind as I watched the Monmouth College Production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic, Waiting for Godot, on Thursday, Feb. 28th. Seeger was asked, “What’s the most important place in the world?” and he answered, “Where you are!” He continued his thought by saying that you can think globally, but you always act locally.

The now archetypal baggy pants “Godot” tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, are absolute exemplars of this idea. Their existential situation on this sterile disk goes to the heart of all meaning, but their daily local routine comes down to “passing the time” while waiting for Godot to come. Since the play for me is about “waiting” not the character or existence of the “awaited”, trying to identify Godot is not a fruitful activity. Beckett’s point is we all wait for something and especially on the big issues little or no verification or even recognition of our waiting is going to be forthcoming. For some faith may be sufficient to bridge the gap; for others faith is a false promise and the only antidote other than despair is to evince Camus like courage. I believe he called it "the courage to be" in spite of being aware of your position in a pointless, random universe. The characters in Waiting for Godot choose to take their minds off their existential position by engaging in a series of repetitive diversionary games.

The gameboard or playground you see when you enter the auditorium of the Wells Theatre is a dusty, tilted disk backed by a fragment of a pier overlooking a frightening sea. That is backed by a row of on-stage seats, which take on an important dimension toward the end of the play when Vladimir senses that “At me too someone is looking.” There is also a subtle hint here of the barren landscape of Beckett’s Endgame, where the room has two windows one looking out on a desert and the other on a sea.

The only real scenic elements on the disk are a coffin like mound on stage right and a giant tree trunk left center. The tree sounds a slightly false note for me. Beckett calls for a lone tree and most productions have settled on some kind of spindly growth or abstract construction. The characters on looking at it wonder whether it is a shrub or bush, but this massive unit is clearly neither. It seems to have been transported from some far more fertile and non-Beckettian environment. Although having this large trunk rise mysteriously at the beginning of each act does improve the sight lines for the folks sitting around the back of the stage, I am unsure that making the tree a part of the game of “Is it real?” is quite worth the effort of constructing it.

Director Janeve West committed herself to a boiling, movement oriented production rather than a quiet angst ridden one. As the show proceeds the characters spend more and more time lower and lower to the ground until toward the end everyone is stretched out on the dusty hardpan waiting for burial. This works most of the time and it results in an energetic production that never flags. Occasionally however, the frenetic movement and pounding footfalls obscured some of Beckett’s finest language. The sound synced passages just after the opening of the second act that start with “All the dead voices make a noise like wings” would be one example of a section that I would have liked to have heard more clearly simply for the poetic beauty of its language.

The very nature of the “act of waiting for something more significant to happen” was hammered home by a member of the audience sitting two rows in front of me. In a patterned counterpoint to the onstage characters’ diversions, this young man flipped open his cell phone to check his messages--even occasionally showing one of them to the girl beside him. I was irritated as my eyes were pulled from the stage by the bright glow of his phone each time he opened it, but fascinated by its comment on the play. A 21st century habit, that is as great a deadener as any I can think of, was playing out before my eyes. While watching the time of the play pass, he was indulging in a fully modern time passing game to divert himself from thinking about the significance of what was happening. I could easily envision a post-post modern production of Waiting For Godot in which the tramps would be continuously responding to their own text or cell phone beeps announcing the arrival of yet another insipid message or advert for Viagra. Meanwhile the audience’s Blackberrys would be sparkling like flashbulbs throughout the the house. Everyone could continue their frenzied multi-tasking as the night progresses and then descends into "im-mobile" darkness. At the final light fade no one will notice whether Godot came or not.

This brings me to voice a clear bravo for the coordination of sound and light. Strangely dissonant music from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was melded seamlessly into dynamic lighting changes. Hot desert yellows (see picture above) and pink backglows gave way to icy blues and brilliant white in a cogent day night pattern and the music was hauntingly appropriate. As I told the play's outstanding designer, Doug Rankin, after the show, I had only one picky suggestion for the lighting. It would have been nice to put a couple of specials on the hat and the shoes at the very end and let them lag just a moment or two after the rest of the lights faded.

In the acting realm director West gave us a gender neutral cast with Vladimir, Estragon, and Pozzo played as men by women and Lucky and the Boy played as men by men. Tiela Halpin’s Vladamir was a standout in raw flexible physicality, complex gesture, facial mobility, and vocal control. Whether haltingly trying to enter the stage or trying to keep from falling off, there was a Harold Lloyd like quality about her movements combined with the innocent surprised and bemused look of a Stan Laurel. Noelle Templeton as Estragon was a noble foil to Halprin’s Vladamir and matched her every step of the way except for facial mobility. Jenny Erbes as Pozzo was compelling visually and her change from sighted to blind was convincing. Her one area of difficulty came in the vocal area where her softer female timbre betrayed her attempts to capture the strident arrogance of Pozzo. Her commands of “Back,” “Basket,” or “pig” just didn’t have enough edge to sound truly vicious. Brandon Landon as Lucky had the appropriate hang-dog demeanor and exploded mightily into his signature speech. Andrew Farraher, as the boy, carried the right winsome quality and was definitely helped by an extraordinary entrance from high on the light bridge.

Overall this was an energetic, intelligent, and smoothly acted performance of a major modern classic by a group of clearly dedicated and hard working young actors. Director West showed a mastery of stage movement for an arena production and brought a dynamic physical ambiance to the show. She also had a definite concept (movement does nothing to guarantee that you get anywhere), which seemed more than appropriate for a frenetic modern multitasking audience. This is the kind of show an educational theatre ought to be doing and it is the kind of show that serious students of the liberal arts should be seeing. The only shame was the small crowd present on opening night.

Jim De Young

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