Waiting for Godot

By Philip Pearce

AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION of a French play by a largely unknown Irish writer opened in London in 1955 to what its 24-year-old director Peter Hall described as “bafflement and derision.” Most critics sneered. A lot of the audience greeted the action with catcalls. Management of the struggling Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street promptly notified cast and crew the show would be closing in a week. But before that could happen, Waiting for Godot unexpectedly began to turn into what we now call a cult classic. And English speaking theater throughout the world has never been quite the same since.

Pre-Godot, Broadway and the West End theater had a sprinkling of absurdist comedies, but the prevailing motivation and money behind stage success depended on how well you followed the rules—harking back to Aristotle—which prescribed how you raised expectations in an audience which you then met in surprising ways by adroit casting and a cleverly crafted script.   

A show about two down-at-heel unemployed comics waiting by a tree to meet someone neither they nor the author knows anything about and then never meeting him hardly filled the bill for theatrical success. But more than sixty years on, Waiting for Godot is living proof that a good play tends to follow the rules while a great one often ignores and kicks them in the pants. 

Like so many classics, Godot has become a happy hunting ground for political, religious and philosophical interpretations. It’s a relief to discover that Samuel Beckett had a healthy contempt for most histrionic posturing. He seemed to think spectators should just enjoy the slapstick and the pathos the way he and I hope they enjoy Laurel and Hardy.

Come to PacRep’s Circle Theatre in Carmel between now and June 2 and see how a wonderful cast and an inspired director make it happen.   

Yes, it’s about a brainy but confused guy named Vladimir and his equally confused down-at-earth sidekick Estragon waiting for but never meeting somebody named Godot. As Vladimir, Cassidy Brown is all compulsive stumbling brainwork. He twirls, postures and speculates with frantic optimism. A sad-faced, earth-bound Brian Herndon as Estragon just wants to take off his tight boots, catch some sleep, eat carrots, hold out his derby hat for an occasional handout and cut all the abstract babbling.   

It’s clear both men have long since fallen from minor recognition as some kind of circus or music hall entertainers. They engage in repeated vaudeville cross-talk and perform a brilliantly executed Stan and Ollie routine with three hats. Both stink from the rigors of their hand-to-mouth vagabond existence, but with busy-brained Vladimir it’s up in his head with smelly breath; with Estragon it’s down at his toes with smelly feet.

These performers become gawping spectators with the arrival of another weird twosome made up of a paunchy, pompous and sadistic ‘lord of the manor’ type named Pozzo, dragging a long leash attached to a shrunken mute slave inappropriately named Lucky. This pair were given an anti-apartheid slant in a pre-Mandela South African production, but Beckett apparently didn’t think much of that either.  

Veteran local favorite Larry Welch is an overpowering mountain of unheeding oppressive pride as the insufferable Pozzo. Accompanying him everywhere, Cody Moore makes stunning work of Lucky’s tour-de-force change from a cringing minion to an eerily powerful orator when his ruthless master suddenly orders him to abandon silence and “think.” Lucky responds in a startling four to five minute non-stop monologue delivered at mounting speed and increasing volume.

Fifth member of this dazzling cast is Joseph Cardinale, once again, as in the recent Coriolanus, a voice of quiet and touchingly juvenile good sense in a surrounding mix of adult confusion. He plays a boy and (possibly) his twin brother, in both cases bringing hopeful but false news that M Godot is on his way. 

Director Kenneth Kelleher, as usual, provides patterns of meaningful, carefully choreographed stage action along with visuals that make clear what the playwright is driving at without ever cheapening or exploiting it. Each act begins with a blinding strobe-lit vision of Vladimir and Estragon. It’s immediately followed by a telling image of human expectation and disappointment in the back projection of one of those five-four-three-two clockwork countdowns flashed on movie screens just before you watch a film clip. Only there’s only the whirling disk of numbers, never any clip. 

The down-to-brass-tacks Estragon echoes the disgruntled early critics and patrons at the 1955  premier when he comments that “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful!”

But he’s wrong. It’s wonderful.

 

Lucky Lindy

By Philip Pearce

LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT TOM PARKS describes Lucky Lindy, his new play at the Cherry, as “a conversation with Charles Lindbergh.”

It’s Q and A between two people who have never met before, one a major figure in twentieth century history, the other a fictional television personality who interviews famous people, past and present. Their exchanges happen at a time when Lucky Lindy and the century are both in their seventies and he seems to have the leisure to look back, mostly with his accustomed calm but occasionally in small emotional outbursts when the conversation strays into some stormy personal territory. 

Parks has made a habit of writing plays about twentieth century notables, but they have largely been strong personalities like Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald who carry the kind of explosive emotional baggage that makes for laughs, pathos and drama.

Lucky Lindy is more restrained. Its ordered interview structure works well with a celebrity as reticent and almost withdrawn as was Charles Lindbergh, who made history more by what he did and what happened to him than by much originality of thought or individuality of personality even in his troubling political attitudes.

Parks’ script imagines Lindbergh’s interviewer as a sharp-tongued but sympathetic media veteran named Maggie, played with plenty of zip and assurance by Lynette Winter. Before Lindy checks in, she trades television technical chat and Hollywood banter with her network director, played from a back row seat that doubles as his sound booth by an un-credited Tom Parks. He and Maggie speculate, as well they might, on why Lindbergh has chosen this late moment to open himself up to an American public he has with some justice regarded with deep resentment for much of his life.

Keith Decker, an actor capable of passion and intensity in most stage circumstances, is an impressively polite and cautiously coherent Lindbergh. He keeps the surface of things smooth and serene until Maggie shifts from his sensational solo transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis and his marriage to Anne Morrow into the raw and ugly territory of his infant son’s kidnapping and death and the cheap sensational publicity that sprang from it.

Segueing this way between studio floor and sound booth makes for a nice change of pace and emphasis on an action that is otherwise  just two people seated center stage talking to each other. But the voice from the sound booth floats down from behind the backs of the audience and in the process sometimes sounds muffled and distorted.  The idea is good one, but some electronic amplification would help. 

The enthusiastic houseful of patrons who packed the theater on opening night contained a lot of aviation buffs, if I’m any judge. The man on my right wore a flight jacket, and my neighbor on the left proudly downloaded shots of the plane he keeps in top shape and flies regularly out of Monterey Airport. 

A longer and more searching script might have made wide and wild guesses about hidden depths lurking beneath Lindbergh’s middle-American reticence. Wisely, this 45-minute one act just sticks to the facts. They are presented, like the subject himself, with an intellectual clarity that keeps you well-informed but, like the subject himself, leaves you a bit emotionally detached.