There are two ways of looking at Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Either: It’s a deeply moving soul-scream of the damned, shrieked into the unfeeling abyss, a threnody of despair and desperation tempered only by the occasional glimmer of hope.
Or: It’s boring as hell.
Indeed, there’s never been finer truth-in-advertising than the title of the play: It’s about two hobos just waiting, most obviously for God. (Beckett himself always asserted that Godot did not stand for God; in Beckett’s native Ireland, this argument goes by the name blarney.) True, it could be that Godot is over-determined. Godot is thus not only God, but also any unattainable or unknowable concept, like deliverance, or grace, or commuter rail to Austin. The vagabonds who spend the play awaiting Godot don’t even know why they wait; but waiting means living, and living, it seems, is worth living for. Arguably.
It’s an argument worth having, even if the parameters of the debate are, to put it mildly, kind of depressing. For a play usually populated by clowns — goofballs Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin recently revived it on Broadway — the Classic Theatre’s production is the saddest Godot I’ve seen. This is absolutely not a criticism, just an observation. Director Tony Ciaravino’s vision is an elegiac one, with less tomfoolery and fewer shenanigans than you might expect from two vaudeville buffoons in bowler hats. Though he keeps the famous comic set pieces intact, Ciaravino emphasizes Beckett’s minimalist music: tone poems of enigmatic symbolism (shriveled turnips; noxious boots; boxy luggage) and, on occasion, arias of bottomless feeling.
Of the two wayward hobos, John O’Neill’s Didi is the more chipper of the two, though “chipper,” under the circumstances, isn’t quite the right word. It’s a capable performance, though rather outdone by Andrew Thornton’s compelling, embittered Gogo, a Buster Keaton on downers. Gogo and Didi’s endless bickering is interrupted only by Pozzo, a monomaniacal bon vivant who is also a literal slave-driver. Jim Mammarella isn’t always convincing in Pozzo’s mercurial shifts of demeanor — from grandiloquent charmer to snarling tyrant — but finds some pathos in Pozzo’s second-act downfall.
The evening, however, belongs to Pozzo’s slave Lucky, and luck has nothing to do with it. Jimmy More displays astonishing acting skill, especially in Lucky’s logorrheic meltdown in Act One. As costumed by Gypsy Pantoja, More embodies the walking dead, a zombie-fied version of all of us: voiceless, breathless, hopeless. He is not, however, soulless. When commanded to “think!” — for Lucky lives only to serve — Lucky bares not only his own psyche, but the essence of modernity. Indeed, Lucky’s soliloquy seems to encapsulate our contemporary fascination with information overflow. The speech’s herky-jerky rhythms and constant self-interruptions mirror the ebb and pace of modern media, from channel switching on HDTVs to shotgun blasts of tweets. More’s robotic rhythms — mechanical and automatic — likewise stress Lucky’s status as an information depository: he’s like a hard drive with infinite capacity but no filing system. He’s the converse of Didi and Gogo’s laconic philosopher-bums, who search for truth through ellipses. It’s anyone’s guess which is the quicker path to Godot.
As indicated by Beckett, the set is spare: just a tree, a bench, some dirt, and a moon. (As the American Repertory Theater and its lawyers discovered in the ’80s, don’t mess with this prescribed mise-en-scène. Beckett’s compassion for mankind apparently ended with auteur directors.) Still, designer David Sanchez manages to put a twist on the famous tree. Here, it’s a gnarled parody of Christ’s crucifix, arms outstretched for an unlovely embrace. Tim Francis contributes straightforward, appropriate lighting. The soundscape is stillness itself.
Through a fluke of scheduling, the San Antonio Shakespeare Company’s rollicking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern preceded Godot in the same space, though Stoppard clearly drew inspiration from Beckett’s earlier meditation on the mysteries of existence. But whereas Stoppard’s play is all words, words, words, Godot is more like silence, silence, silence, fart. Godot is challenging but welcome theater, exposing San Antonio audiences to the most influential voice in 20th-century drama: a “classic” by anyone’s definition. Let’s hope that next season’s roster of classical voices — Ibsen, Shakespeare, Goldman, and Coward — leaves us waiting for … more. •
Waiting for Godot
Through May 30
1 (800) 838-3006