Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Disney's The Little Mermaid
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, originally written in French and premiering in English in 1955, has been praised as "the most significant English language play of the 20th century," analyzed and theorized by scholars in multiple fields from theology to philosophy to geo-politics, and has influenced such groundbreaking dramatists as Pinter, Stoppard, and Fugard. The play has also graced stages small and large from high schools to Broadway and has been immolated in film (Waiting for Huffman) and on Sesame Street ("Waiting for Elmo").
And yet, this is just a play about two men who appear to return daily to a rock and a lone, barely alive tree, waiting for someone they have never met to show up for reasons never expressed. Their round-robin dialogue about not much at all, their many questions asked and usually never answered, and their roller-coaster of emotions from despair to elation and back again have entertained, mesmerized, and yes, puzzled audiences around the world now for more than half a century.
Producer and director Jeanie Smith joins the vast parade of those before her to bring her vision of this iconic play to the 2nd Stages Series of Dragon Production Theatre Company. With sweet humor that produces chuckles but not guffaws, her Estragon and Vladimir kibitz, grouse, joke, console, argue, and of course wait ... and wait. She keeps the inaction of their actions at a pace that lures the audience into almost a dream-like state as we all wait to see if this time, Godot might actually show up. Humor mixed with pathos is the dominant result of the tone generated, but there are also hints of childlike curiosity and wonder of new discoveries and thoughts as well as adult resignation that this life will never get any better than it is now.
In their bowler hats and tattered but presentable garb, Estragon and Vladimir appear and begin the back-and-forth conversations that largely go nowhere except in circles. Jim Johnson is the older, slump-shouldered Vladimir with scrubby, grey beard, deep-pocketed cheeks, and eyes that twinkle when a new idea amuses him, if no one else. His body is rubber-like in its limber ability to move in all directions and shapes. Often when his knees sway together in one direction, his upper half seems to be ready to head the opposite way. He is the philosopher half of the two and the memory bank of what they did yesterday, where, and with whom. He is an encourager of sorts, answering Estragon's frequent "I can't go on like this" with replies given in sympathetic sighs like, "That's what you think." Known as "Didi" by the one he calls "Gogo," Mr. Johnson's Vladimir exudes a loyalty of friendship and relationship much deeper than many of the same family have, yet also with a recognized resignation that apart they might be happiersomething they both seem to know will never happen.
Ronald Feichtmeir's expressive face continually projects the changing moods, quick moments of clarity and long periods of confusion, and big swings in optimism/depression that his Estragon undergoes. His voice rings with a quality that reminds one of a black-and-white film of the early 1930s. He at times has a Charlie Chaplin demeanor when he combines mild slapstick moves and clownish antics with sad, bewildered looks that could break a heart as he struggles to remember and understand why they are where they are, if they have been here before, and why they should wait any longer. At times he and Didi are reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, especially during one amusing three-hat exchange where caps fly on and off at increasing speed and silliness.
Into the lives of these two vagabonds comes an arrogant, haughty, full-of-himself Pozzo, led on a long rope by a bent-over, white-haired slave ironically named Lucky. Pozzo (Michael Champlin) pontificates to no one in particular, hardly at first noticing the presence of our two now-dumbfounded friends as he barks orders to his shuffling slave. To Lucky, he is abusive and mean in tone and attitude. To Estragon and Vladimir, he is eventually highly civil and sophisticated, still without really paying them much mind.
Robert Sean Campbell is the hapless, unlucky Lucky who carries heavy bags and the whip his master supposedly uses on him and looks up in blank, round-eyed stare only when commanded. His one-time barrage of words comes when he is told to "think," at which point he then pours out an encyclopedic array of paragraphs that begin with a theological bent and descend to subjects obscure and convoluted. He and Pozzo eventually wander off in act one but return in quite altered states in act two, much to the mild amusement and only reluctant notice of Estragon and Vladimir.
One further person breaks into this barren stage, a boy who arrives at the end of each day/act to announceamid lots of yes sirs and no sirs to Vladimir's eager inquiriesthat Godot is not coming that day but might appear the next. Young Jack Champlin is the red-haired messenger with angelic face who may or may not be playing the same boy on the two different days.
Robert SEan Campbell has designed a simple but impressive stage scene, creating a rock out of inlaid wood and a lone pole of a tree shooting up from a sawed-off truck, and hanging panels in various geometric shapes hinting at a barren, desert landscape. Dan Garret's lighting design presents the stark world for what it is, zeroing in on moments where shadows or spots create needed effects. The early 20th century music of Gordon Smith's sound design echoes from time to time to suggest a vaudeville, early movies era that gets picked up also in the characters before us.
The night I attended, the audience reaction to Dragon's Waiting for Godot was mostly muted but always politely intent and interested, as easily witnessed in the intimate setting of the theatre. While this production may not have plowed any new ground (if at this point there is any to be found for a play so often produced), Jeanie Smith's version and vision certainly do honorable justice to a play that reigns on any collector's shelf as a classic of French and American drama.
Waiting for Godot continues through October 2, 2016, as part of Dragon Productions Theatre Company's 2nd Stages Series. The play is presented on its main stage at 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA. Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.