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Waiting for Godot

When World War II incinerated Europe, eventually leaving the smoldering continent with a death toll of nearly 50,000,000 human beings, the philosophic and artistic response shifted from that of resistance to that of nihilism, as the slaughter ended and folks tried to pick up the pieces of western "civilization."

(Left to right) Timothy McCracken as Estragon and Sam Gregory as Vladimir
(L to R) Timothy McCracken as Estragon
and Sam Gregory as Vladimir
Photo: M. Gale Photography 2017
One genre of nihilistic response came to be known as "theatre of the absurd," exemplified by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, now in production by the Arvada Center's repertory ensemble. While initial Parisian audiences scratched their heads in 1953, when the play was first produced, and while it received a hostile reception when it opened in London two years after that, Waiting for Godot gradually found its audience, after Kenneth Tynan's and Harold Hobson's positive reviews in The Observer and The Sunday Times, on August 7, 1955, despite opposition from the artistic and political establishment.

Beckett's intent and the symbolism in the play has been the source of a wide variety of sometimes contradictory interpretations, but regardless of the perceived message, Beckett had obviously touched a nerve with the powers-that-be, questioning their façade of civility, not only with regard to church and state, but with the meaning of life itself.

Over the more than six decades since it premiered, Waiting for Godot continues to show the universality of the questions that it raises, with the elemental nature of the play's symbols providing maximum flexibility and relevancy.

Estragon (Timothy McCracken) is trying to take off his boots, which are killing him, and asks his friend Vladimir (Sam Gregory) to help. Gogo and Didi, as they affectionately call each other, repeat this scene—of removing boots, losing them, finding them, and remounting them—numerous times, which turns out to be just one of a number of routines to which they return, including: vaudeville shtick with legs and hats; Estragon leaving to sleep elsewhere and then returning in the morning, with Vladimir happy to see him again; Vladimir interrupting Estragon's sleep and dreams, to much consternation; Estragon and Vladimir contemplating hanging themselves from the fragile tree; and, of course, their inability to break their patterns and move on, because they are "waiting for Godot." All of this cyclical behavior provides plenty of fodder for Beckett's commentary on the personal and collective forces that oppress humankind.

Director Geoff Kent and his actors had the gift of a seven-week rehearsal process, which shows in the refined relationships and performances of the entire ensemble, particularly in McCracken and Gregory's simpatico, despite the marked differences in their characters' outlooks. In McCracken's portrayal, we see the pain in Estragon's face and body language, and hear it in his voice. He is a pessimist knocked from one interaction to the next by forces beyond his control or understanding. Yet, these same forces do not depress Gregory's Vladimir, whose cheery outlook is a source of both aggravation and stability for his old friend. Even when Vladimir finds himself aligning with Estragon's morose moments, Gregory's gestalt somehow makes the situation absurd, not depressing.

(Left to right) Sam Gilstrap as Pozzo and Timothy McCracken as Estragon
(L to R) Sam Gilstrap as Pozzo and
Timothy McCracken as Estragon
Photo: M. Gale Photography 2017
Regardless of their disparate points-of-view and their trials and travails, Estragon and Vladimir's friendship is the most dependable and uplifting element in the story, and stands in stark contrast to that of Pozzo (Sam Gilstrap) and Lucky (Josh Robinson), who visit them twice, once in each act. The fatalism depicted in Pozzo and Lucky's interdependency of master and slave begs for commentary. As Americans, our tendency is to consider racism and Manifest Destiny as part of this mix; but, this would be a mistake in Beckett's world, where oppression and slavery, first and foremost, are psychological states. Gilstrap brings an understated but steadfast sense of entitlement to Pozzo, who controls Lucky by a rope, and further degrades his starving slave by drinking wine and eating chicken in front him. As Lucky, Robinson's presence is that of a beaten man at the literal end of his rope of physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance. He speaks only once, but in this delivers Beckett's exegesis of the play.

Josh Robinson as Lucky
Josh Robinson as Lucky
Photo: M. Gale Photography 2017
As noted, many dismissed Waiting for Godot when it first appeared, seeing it as nonsense, and in doing so completely missed its complexity, failing to understand that as a protégé of James Joyce, Beckett operated on a plane far beyond the employment of the obvious. One of the key points in Lucky's rant is an overview of the issue raised by Estragon and Vladimir regarding the existence of G-d, essentially describing the disintegration of humankind, and western civilization in particular, following the abandonment of the notion of a heavenly old man with a white beard—despite our employment of physical culture to maintain vitality and distract ourselves from, what the nihilists see as, the pointlessness of human existence.

And all this, despite Estragon and Vladimir's friendship and Beckett's own actions, having served in the French Resistance during the war and his compulsion to write about life in the aftermath.

(Left to right) Sam Gregory as Vladimir and Sean Scrutchins as Boy
(L to R) Sam Gregory as Vladimir
and Sean Scrutchins as Boy
Photo: M. Gale Photography 2017
With the figure of the Boy (Sean Scrutchins) appearing in each act, to deliver a message from Godot, the cycle completes itself. Scrutchins' dutiful responses, out of respect for his elders, Estragon and Vladimir, add a sense of honesty and truth when he verifies that it is Mr. Godot's wish for the pair to wait until tomorrow (once again) for his arrival. The Boy also confirms that Mr. Godot has a white beard, much as Lucky describes G-d; thus, at the end of each iteration, Estragon and Vladimir continue to stare at the moon and wait for Godot.

(Left to right) Timothy McCracken as Estragon and Sam Gregory as Vladimir
(L to R) Timothy McCracken as Estragon
and Sam Gregory as Vladimir
Photo: M. Gale Photography 2017
Kent's design team does excellent work. We were particularly enamored of: Brian Mallgrave's set—which includes industrial remnants amidst its detritus, as well as a little pond, added perhaps as a reminder of the incubator from whence we were engendered; Meghan Anderson Doyle's well-drawn costumes—Vladimir's once stylish, now tarnished attire, and the regalia of trappings hanging from Pozzo's uniform, speak volumes; as well as the subtle lighting from Shannon McKinney and moody sound from Jason Ducat.

The Arvada Center's presentation of Waiting for Godot runs through May 20th. For tickets: arvadacenter.org.




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