Festival’s Waiting for Godot a must-see gem

Waiting for Godot
Stratford Festival
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Tom Patterson Theatre
Runs until September 26
Approximate running time: two hours and 35 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)
Tickets: or online www.stratfordfestival.ca

STRATFORD – In a season that has already produced at least three must-see shows, the theatrical gem of the year has arrived – Samuel Beckett’s alternately bleak but bitingly humorous tragic allegory on the absurdity of life, Waiting For Godot.

A mind-numbing exhibition of brilliant acting from the incomparable Brian Dennehy (photo below) and the wonderful Tom Rooney, Stephen Ouimette and Randy Hughson, the playwright’s work is directed with clear precision by Jennifer Tarver, allowing her actors just the right amount of freedom, while still ensuring the necessary structure is maintained.

The key to fully appreciating the production is to, at least for two-and-a-half hours, abandon the quest to comprehend every intricate bit of philosophy – whether existential or nihilistic – served up by Beckett. Simply sit back and gaze in wonder at some of the finest acting to grace the Festival stage in years.

Rooney as Vladimir, the more optimistic of the two vagabond seekers of true meaning, is a marvel, while Ouimette’s Estragon is a glorious mix of quivering pessimism, utter frustration, at times fighting with his own odd comprehension of reality.

The two bring fire and magic to Beckett’s poetic comical wordplay and seemingly nonsensical observations on fate, time and their place on earth – marked here by a barren tree, pathway, and a rock set on an almost dreamlike landscape without boundaries.

Meanwhile, Dennehy’s Pozzo is a complex figure of both majesty and misery, an overbearing figure of cruel, with almost mythological God-like qualities who controls his shackled bedraggled servant Lucky (Hughson) at will throughout the first act, only to return in act two blind, helpless in an uncomfortable horizontal position and subject to the kind of inane trivialities that dominate the lives of Vladimir and Estragon.

One of the most stunning moments of the play – and there are many – is when he succumbs to the reality that he no longer possesses the ability to control time, much in the same tyrannical fashion he once lorded his superiority of the ironically named Lucky.

“Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It's abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more”

The intriguing Lucky unleashes his sublimely rambling monologue – a magnificently curious 700-word jumble on God’s arbitrary nature, inevitable death and earth’s demise – when Pozzo urges the two tramps to ask him to think.

The simple start-up mechanism is a hat, placed on the servant’s shaggy head. What comes out of Hughes’ mouth with rapid-fire gusto and energy is a philosophical rant that would make Rick Mercer green with envy.

“Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say  blast heaven to hell so blue still and calm so calm with a calm……..”

While the characters seem clearly unwilling to accept the reality that their lives may be meaningless, their words, actions and constant obsession with petty distractions – even though recurrent thoughts of suicide are hardly petty – their behavior speaks otherwise.

Their stations in life are irrelevant, given the radical overnight transformation of Pozza from overlord to slave.

Set designer Teresa Przybylski is an equally important contributor to the production’s overall structure and mood. Her creation, a simple, effective, winding off-white roadway, is ideal for keeping the cast in clear view at all time, limiting them to the kind of space, both literal and figurative, that symbolizes the constraints of their existence.

While the prospect of unraveling the thoughts of a purportedly existentialist like Beckett may seem a tad unnerving at first glance, it’s equally important to remember that much of his work is always presented within the confines of genuine humour, a  great deal of it almost the baggy-pants variety associated with the early days of vaudeville.

Consider the fact that the play’s first U.S. production was January 3, 1956 starring well-known comic actor Tom Ewell (The Seven-Year Itch) as Vladimir with Bert Lahr, a former vaudeville beloved for his work as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, as Estragon.

While the Coconut Grove offering tanked, Lahr took the role to Broadway and, with a new partner E.G. Marshall and director (Herbert Berghof), garnered rave reviews, prompting some critics to suggest he had created a template of sorts for the character. So while the work is an intellectual exercise, it also comes wrapped enticingly with plenty of comic asides and pratfalls.

While the many questions Beckett was struggling with through his work may remain unanswered for as long as human beings continue to ponder their very existence, Waiting for Godot is still very much here for its unarguable theatrical value.

Meanwhile at this year’s Stratford Festival, a gifted director and a supremely talented company of actors (including the very capable Ethan Ioannidis and alternate Noah Jalava as Godot’s messenger boy) continue to liberally dish out those searing moments of intense drama and introspection, interspersed with all the chuckles and some downright belly laughs audiences can handle for an evening. Waiting for Godot nabs **** out of four stars.
  /   4

Geoff Dale is a freelance writer and photographer based in Woodstock, Ontario. Born in London, England, he has been a journalist since 1975 and a lover of film, theatre and books since as long as he can remember. A Stratford Festival reviewer for The Beat, he is expecting his first work of fiction, an alternative history entitled The Fine Art of Boxing – No Stooge in the Ring, to be published sometime in 2013.

Photos: 1) Pictured from left, Stephen Ouimette as Estragon, Brian Dennehy as Pozzo and Tom Rooney as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann;  2) Brian Dennehy as Pozzo. Photo by Don Dixon

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