Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Playbills from Broadway--Waiting for Godot

A lot of people collect the Playbills from the theater, so much so that there are even special bindings you can buy to preserve them. And opening night Playbills come with a little sticker attesting to that.

I totally understand the urge to keep the program; I always bring mine home, especially from plays I've enjoyed. But mine are never crisp, neat, and well-preserved. Somehow they end up all rumpled and bent from being rolled up, dropped on the floor,
stuffed in a bag. But I keep them nonetheless. They are free souvenirs, easy to pack, and a good way to spark my notoriously bad memory for details long after I think I've forgotten the play.

On our recent trip to New York, we saw three plays, all coincidentally featuring well-known screen celebrities and all featuring a rather bleak outlook on life, although that's not necessarily why we chose the plays. The most memorable was
Waiting for Godot, starring Bill Irwin, John Glover, Nathan Lane, and John Goodman.

I've seen Godot before and have read the play several times.
Waiting for Godot can seem quite despairing, especially on the written page. Full of existential angst and brutality, it's an odd choice for someone like me who trends toward depression. But this production was a revelation -- I had never realized how funny Godot is, in the right hands. Comedy truly is in the timing.The actors in this production hit every note. It was by turns hilarious, profoundly moving, and -- again somewhat unexpectedly-- optimistic. We may not know why we are on this earth or what our lives mean. There may be nothing to do. But we are alive and that is reason enough to keep on living. Or so this production implied.

Lane (Estragon) and Irwin (Vladimir) are excellent, two satellites that circle each other at safe removes, seemingly independent, and yet tethered by the gravity of companionship and need. Glover's Lucky, literally tethered to his master Pozzo by a thick rope around his neck, was an interesting blend of Tim Burton's Jack Skellington from
The Nightmare Before Christmas and the loose-limbed, pontificating Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz (although certainly less cheerful than the latter.)

All the actors were superb, but John Goodman's performance
just blew me away. I've often been impressed and surprised by the depths Goodman reveals in some of his films. It's a mistake to consider him only as the funny fat man he played in Roseanne or movies like the Flintstones. He can tap into something very dark, as evidenced in his scary performances in Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou. Here, he plays Pozzo, a cruel, selfish, aristocrat with a vaguely British, uppercrust accent and an imperious, threatening demeanor. Goodman's immense size and power contributes to his threatening posture and makes the scene when Pozzo falls to the ground and can't get up all the more moving. His Pozzo is at once full of aggrandizing self-assurance, unquestioned privilege, barely contained rage, pathetic neediness, and, at the end, wisdom and insight, if only for a brief moment. It's a stunning performance.

We lucked into a brief after-show discussion featuring Irwin, Glover, and Goodman. They talked about the choice of pronunciation (GOD-oh rather than Go-doh), which I at first found disconcerting. Apparently, it's closer to Beckett's original French, and it resonates better with Pozzo. But the most amusing and interesting exchange was John Goodman's answer to the inevitable question about whether Godot is God and what in the heck it all means. "I don't know or care," said Goodman. "I just try to tell a good story." In this, he seems to be echoing Beckett, who once said, "all I knew about Pozzo was in the text...if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.” Beckett also once said that "if by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot.”

When asked, "how do you handle the humor in such an incessantly pessimistic play," Goodman deadpanned, "with a trowel." He paused, then went on, "What are you going to do? It's an inherently funny play. Samuel Beckett wrote it for Sid Caesar."

I wish I had thought to ask about the obvious blood and bruises on Lane's face. My recollection, reinforced by a quick look at the very interesting
Wikipedia entry on the play, is that there was never any evidence to support Estragon's claim that he is beaten every night. This production erases that ambiguity. It might thus also subtly erase the ambiguity about whether the child who purports to be a messenger from Godot actually has met and talked to the never-seen title character, although, as Frink points out, the child is not exactly a reliable witness, as he cannot remember having met Didi and Gogo the day before. This production also encourages a more hopeful ending by having E and V grasp the other's hand in the final scene.

Here's a link to the
theatre, where Godot is playing through July 12.

I'll post thoughts on the other two plays,
God of Carnage and Exit the King, in the next few days.

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