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Monday, 22 April 2013 00:27

Still Waiting for Godot

Written by Robert Ashton
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The Details

Samuel Becket's "Waiting for Godot" is considered one of the masterpieces of modern theater and yet it is performed rarely. St. Louis Actor's Studio's production, directed by Bobby Miller, has some good moments but does not, in the end, reveal to the audience why this piece of work is considered so great.

Talking after the show with local theater historians it may be almost two decades since it was last produced professionally in St. Louis. It presents no real technical difficulties: a small cast of 5 actors (4 men and a boy), one relatively simple set, no complicated costumes, lights or props. It is the script itself that presents the challenge. Vivian Mercier, the Irish literary critic, in his famous summation of the play in the Irish Times in 1956, wrote Becket "has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice."

Becket himself has been famously unhelpful about explaining "Waiting for Godot". Human dependency, unfairness, blind ritual in an apparently random world and the ability to find humor in adversity are all features of the play.  Like all of Becket's work Godot is cut back to the minimum. Timing and rhythm are essential as it veers from long silences to high speed vaudevillian exchanges but it was in this area that the production struggled.

The play opens with one apparently dead tree (a real dead tree, apparently),  two rocks and two men, Vladimir (Gary Wayne Barker) and Estragon (Terry Meddows) who are clearly down on their luck. They have returned to wait for Godot, something they have seemingly been doing for years. Exactly who Godot is is never revealed and the two men can't even clearly remember what they wanted from him. They talk about giving up their wait or even committing suicide but are unable to break out of their terrible routine. They are joined by Pozzo (Greg Johnston) an arrogant, self-interested bully and his slave, Lucky (Aaron Orion Baker) and later a young boy (Hayden Benbenek) who tells them that Godot can't come that day but 'surely tomorrow.' In the second act, they have again returned to the same place, except the tree has a few leaves. This time, when Pozzo returns he is blind and has no memory of them nor does the boy, who claims this is the first time he's seen them … and the cycle repeats.

Meddows, as the more prosaic Estragon, produced a convincing, funny and engaging character. Barker, the more philosophically inclined Vladimir, was very good in the moments of intimacy with Estragon but seemed less comfortable when facing the chilling reality of the world they inhabit. He defaulted more to anger than to a desperate, fearful response that might at points better represent the awfulness of the situation. Perhaps due to opening night adjustments with a live audience, the timing between the two seemed off at times, particularly in the first act, causing missed moments and a slow pace. By stark comparison, their exchanges at the early part of the second act crackled with speed and energy.

Johnston's portrayal of Pozzo was tentative and desperately seeking of acceptance from Vladimir and Estragon. This significantly detracted from the energy this character needs to project and weakened the contrast with his later breakdown and blindness. For most of the time on stage Lucky is silent, exhausted from carrying Pozzo's bags and Baker expressed this very well. He speaks only once but it's a two and half page stream of consciousness tirade, famous for its difficulty of memorization, with ideas tumbling and tripping over ideas. Baker enunciated every word clearly but his relatively slow and steady delivery did not really rise to the crescendo needed to cause the others to physically subdue him. Nine year old Hayden Benbenek as "a boy" seemed very comfortable on the stage, even when being pushed around, and he delivered his lines clearly; skills some actors many years his senior could emulate.

The set and lighting by Patrick Huber were appropriately stark, although in the night scenes the actors were sometimes almost invisible. Both costumes (Michele Friedman Siler) and props (Lisa Beke) added to the overall dilapidated impression.

Kudos to St. Louis Actor's Studio for staging this difficult play and giving St. Louis audiences a chance to see it.  There are a lot of good moments but for a production that fully exposes the power of "Godot", I'm afraid we are still waiting.

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