Most audiences unaccustomed to playwright Samuel Beckett’s work would probably agree with the line Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful, when the character Estragon speaks it in the abstract tragicomedy Waiting for Godot.
Unlike traditional plays, Beckett’s works have always pushed the envelope at creating plays from the barest of dramatic elements. Yet within Beckett’s non-linear play structures and nonsensical dialogue lies a treasure chest of symbolism, Biblical allusions and a multi-layered exploration and commentary on the human condition.
Even though Godot is considered to be a dramatic masterpiece of this century, its bleak outlook and uneventful plot would hardly be a huge draw from Salt Lake theater audiences weaned on spectacle-based musicals and old-fashioned comedies and dramas.
I can’t, nor do I want to compete with theater spectacle, said West before a preview performance. Actor and character-driven material is what I really find exciting.
For West’s first foray as director and producer, Waiting For Godot has been a wonderful, scary experience. Right now I’d just be happy to break even with this and future productions, West said. I know there’s the risk of losing money, but I’ve had other times in my life when I was making more money and was less happy than I am now.
Ultimately West would like THEATRE, inc. to become like New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company that rediscovers traditional plays for modern audiences. While West’s THEATRE, inc. has a long way to go before it becomes Salt Lake’s Roundabout, it certainly shows great initial promise with its revival of Waiting For Godot.
Since very little actually happens in Godot, you need amazing actors that can continually hold the audience’s attention while simultaneously delivering the play’s unusual dialogue and exposing a vast store of subtext.
Luckily, West has been able to assemble a cast that delivers engaging performances for most of the play. West’s major casting coup comes with the unlikely pairing of X96’s Radio From Hell morning show DJ Bill Allred with KUER’s morning classical music host Gene Pack in the respective roles of the friendship-bound Estragon and Vladimer.
Allred and Pack each flesh out their roles with a brand of comedy and timing that likens them to other great comic duos like Laurel and Hardy. As plump ragamuffin tramps that occupy their time arguing and philosophizing as they wait for a Godot who never appears, Allred and Pack find the right balance of being appropriately cuddly and repulsive to the audience at the same time.
Another performance that commands attention comes from Tony Larimer as Pozzo. With his imposing figure and booming voice, Larimer’s dandy Pozzo always brings life to the play.
Questions arise about West’s staging with his casting of Gayle Staffanson as the dumb manservant Lucky and his decision to costume the boy (played by Henry Byer) in modern clothing.
While Staffanson does everything required to get emotional responses from the audience, her presence doesn’t quite fit. Made up to be old and male, Staffanson looks out of place, especially in the company of veteran actors Pack and Larimer.
And when Byer walks boldly from the wings in modern elementary school hip-hop gear, it looks as if he’s a kid from the audience who picked the wrong entrance after visiting the bathroom. As a messenger from Godot, the boy’s modern dress may seem incongruous to some. But since the boy’s message always seems to be the samethat Godot will not visit this eveningthe boy’s modern clothes could easily point out that even today humanity is still waiting for a Godot to reappear again.
Even though the play drags at times, one is never really sure if it is the fault of the production, or if Beckett intended it to do so to make the audience feel uneasy and nervous. For the most part, West has staged a fine Godot. West demonstrates that the play needs an audience to work, and he shows this when the actors wink back at the audience through asides from the script.
While Waiting For Godot may not appeal to everybody, its reappearance on the Salt Lake City theater scene through a new theater company is certainly a welcome addition.
THEATRE, inc.’s production of Waiting For Godot plays until April 19 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, located at 138 W. 300 South. Call ArtTix at 355-ARTS (2787) for ticket and performance information.