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“Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts” By Samuel Beckett, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley CA

From left: Mark Anderson Phillips, Ben Johnson, Mark Bedard

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photo by Kevin Berne

Send in the Clowns

As a college student in his native Ireland, poet, novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett was inspired by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This is delightfully apparent in his seminal work “Waiting for Godot” being presented at Marin Theatre Company.  What is less apparent is a storyline or plot. This, as it turns out, was the playwright’s intent. “Godot” was so controversial during its first outing in Paris in 1953 that brawls erupted among theatergoers who had differing opinions on exactly what Beckett was trying to say. Originally written in French (Beckett’s favored language), its title “En Attendant Godot” translates literally to “While Waiting for Godot”, which is a much better description of what happens – or does not happen – onstage.

The curtain rises on Vladimir (called Didi) and Estragon (called Gogo), two clownish everymen calling up the friendly ghosts of Laurel and Hardy in their appearance and demeanor. They could be brothers, lovers or friends; it makes no difference. Both guys wear shabby ill-fitting suits and bowler hats, the uniform of silent screen comics. They linger near a barren tree by the side of a deserted road, and it’s obvious they’ve been there quite awhile, maybe for days. Who is Godot, and why do Didi and Gogo wait for him? This almost seems to be beside the point, and there are no real specifics in the dialogue. This overall vagueness, so intelligently designed by the playwright, has allowed audiences worldwide the freedom to make of it what they will, in much the same way the early silent comedies transcended language and culture. You can discover profound existential meaning, or let this comedy-of-the-absurd wash over you for pure enjoyment. It meets you where you are, whoever you are.

As Gogo and Didi pass the time, there’s much blathering on about nothing, and everything. There are farts, smelly feet, pratfalls and funny poses. There are discussions of halitosis, heaven and hell, suicide and mandrakes, memory loss and bladder problems. There are philosophical questions, songs and jokes. Mark Anderson Phillips infuses his Gogo with simple sweetness, the more earthbound of the pair. The assertive Didi is played with clumsy determination by Mark Bedard. Both actors are at the top of their game, cavorting on the razor’s edge between overt sentimentality and over-the-top silliness, where a tumble in either direction could spoil the effect. Like skilled trapeze artists, they keep their balance.

The peace is shattered suddenly, with a shout, when fearsome megalomaniac Pozzo (James Carpenter) bursts upon the scene. He is pulled along on a long, thick rope by a grim, wheezing, cadaverous-looking fellow called Lucky (Ben Johnson). This bizarre and unexpected event certainly rocks Gogo and Didi’s world, causing them much trepidation, then speculation. Carpenter lends Pozzo an air of controlled frenzy and a pathological need for attention. Johnson delivers an enormous performance as the mostly silent, dejected Lucky. His one turn to speak is like watching a great tree come to life. What at first seems to be a master-slave relationship between Pozzo and Lucky takes a strange and ironic turn between their first appearance and when they show up again near the end of the second act.

Just when we are beginning to doubt the existence of someone named Godot, a young boy who works for him (Lucas Meyers) arrives to deliver a message from his master to Gogo and Didi. It seems their wait will continue.

Instead of finding a need to fill every moment with some bit of business, director Jasson Minadakis (in his seventh season as MTC Artistic Director) carefully preserves the stillness between the lines with graceful timing and crisp, choreographic blocking of the characters’ movements. By focusing equally on the pair’s buffoonery and seemingly hopeless plight, and treating both comic and tragic elements of the play with an even hand, he reinforces the playwright’s intent in allowing the audience to identify with the characters as part of the universal human condition of interdependence.  While playing Estragon in the original 1955 London production, actor Peter Woodthrope asked Beckett what the play was really about. Beckett replied “It’s all symbiosis, Peter; it’s symbiosis,” The secret, revealed.

Beckett’s play tells us we’re all waiting, and chained to habits. It illustrates how we can be rooted to the spot by lack of imagination or fear of change, but we need each other, and there is hope if we face life together, whatever comes. This play carries deep pleasure straight to the heart, which explains why it has endured for almost 60 years, through all times and all cultures of the world.

When: now through February 17, 2012

8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays

2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays

2 p.m. Saturday, February 16

Tickets: $36 to $57

Location: Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941
Phone: 415-388-5208