If there is an opposite to escapist entertainment, it is perhaps best represented by Samuel Beckett’s landmark 1953 play, “Waiting for Godot.” Despite moments of hope and brightness, Beckett is determined to show us that, ultimately, no escape is possible.
In its current production by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, Beckett’s masterpiece still feels boldly experimental, 70 years after the play’s creation. Its two main characters, Vladimir, nicknamed Didi (played by Anthony Marble) and Estragon, nicknamed Gogo (played by Derek Wilson), spend the two days depicted in the play doing … not much of anything except waiting for Godot, who never shows up and, we are led to believe, probably never will.
Granted, it’s an oversimplification to say all they do is wait. There is some humor and drama and verbal jousting and physical clowning in the play, as well as other elements that fit into the scope of what you would come to expect in a theatrical production. But there are also long portions of the two acts where nothing much happens. Just like life.
Vladimir and Estragon dress shabbily and seem to be homeless yet seem to have an air of refinement, as if they were formerly well-off men who have fallen upon hard times. (Little about their respective backgrounds or the history with each other is explained in the play). Vladimir is the more intellectual, more confident one; Estragon looks to him for answers and leadership. They finish each other’s sentences and banter like a married couple, and sometimes communicate in terse exchanges such as this one:
Estragon: What do we do now?
Vladimir: While waiting?
Estragon: While waiting.
Vladimir: We could do our exercises.
Estragon: Our movements.
Vladimir: Our elevations.
Estragon: Our relaxations.
Vladimir: Our elongations.
Estragon: Our relaxations.
Vladimir: To warm us up.
Estragon: To calm us down.
Marble and Wilson do a great job of showing the characters’ bond to each other, and creating a hypnotic sense of rhythm as they banter back and forth. Joining them in the cast are Gregory Derelian as Pozzo (who shows up as both a cruel, imperious gentleman in the first act and a pathetic blind man in need of help in the second), Michael Stewart Allen as Pozzo’s abused servant Lucky (who is literally tethered to him by a rope), and Jaiya Chetram as the Boy, who appears only briefly and has a mysterious connection to Godot.
STNJ’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, handles the direction, as well as the designing the costumes and the beautiful though minimal set.
I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of this “Waiting for Godot.” But I don’t think Beckett intended anyone to enjoy every minute of any production of “Waiting for Godot.”
It is a work, after all, that, at times, evokes the tedium and the frustration of being human by making you live through tedium and frustration. And even though it is now considered one of the quintessential plays of the 20th century, there is no consensus on what it means.
“I have on more than one occasion encouraged you, our audience, to avoid the urge or attempt to understand a particular play as you are viewing it,” writes Monte, who is now in her 33rd and final year as STNJ’s artistic director, in the program. “Instead, I have encouraged you to simply experience it, let it wash over you, and resist trying to decipher its meaning or variety of meanings until after it has ended.
“I advocate the same approach as you watch ‘Waiting for Godot.’ ”
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will present “Waiting for Godot” at its F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison through Oct. 1. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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