Death comes to us all. Tragically, for some, that dreaded expiration date is sooner than later. However low this indefatigable cloud of doom hangs over our life journey is irrelevant because there is a bright, guiding North star shining through for humanity. We, as individuals, posses a certain level of control over our lives. That certain control can even be utilized efficiently, if one allows it to be guided in discipline by one simple, yet, commonly haunting question: what exactly shall an individual do with their precious, fleeting time?
And whatever one decides, there is always the dreaded follow up: does whatever you end up deciding to do really mean something?
These are the questions that are asked in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, performed by the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre. This is a challenging, opaque, and ambiguous play, and consequently, it offers a high degree of flexibility in how it can be interpreted, i.e. philosophically, psychologically, sociologically, or even as an allegory.
Paradoxically, despite its many meanings the play has a disarmingly simple premise: Two wayward, down-on-their-luck nobodies by the names of Estragon and Vladimir (Don Alder and Grant Byington) wait under a tree for a man named Godot. This is what both the first and second acts are precisely about. That is it.
Now who exactly is Godot and what business does the unlikely duo have with the man? It is unclear and remains so throughout, but evidently, the meat of the play is in how they wait, why they wait, and lastly, who they meet while they wait. Because, surprisingly there is more than the two bumbling nobodies, and in fact the other three characters — a nasty, ultra-wealthy and pompous man named Pozzo (Todd Henderson), his unlucky, brutally-treated servant Lucky (Steve Vanderzee), and a mysterious Boy who has pertinent or maybe not-so-pertinent information on the enigmatic Godot — are all seemingly crucial components to this puzzling machine where I am still left not having a complete sense of what it all is, or what it all means.
But despite the fact of this inherent inconclusiveness and the common tendency for that to be polarizing for audiences (this same inconclusiveness has without a doubt aided the play in achieving its remarkably lasting relevancy, ironically), the cast and crew of Waiting for Godot was able to capture all of the play’s existential and cerebral conundrums while infusing it with poise and sincerity. There is a genuine compassion and empathy for these five distinct characters, most notably between the relationship of our two heroes, the nomadic quasi-brothers, Estragon and Vladimir.
Don Alder and Grant Byington, undeniable professionals of their craft, certainly played up the laughs gifted from Becket’s ping-pong-dialogue script, where words and puns and callbacks are delivered with such relentless velocity yet balanced by a delicate and precise rhythm (cue victory trumpet horns for director Pat Patton). But the emotional arc of these two characters and the true nature of their friendship that slowly bloomed and revealed itself by the end was really what was so impressive with the performances. I found myself genuinely and completely moved by their relationship.
Don Alder and Grant Byington almost steal the show with that, but because the other performers are equally as enticing, hilarious, and committed to their characters as they are, I can’t say anyone completely steals it. In both a literally and metaphorically breathless moment of the play, Lucky (Steve Vanderzee), the near-mute slave or indentured servant of the unsavory Pozzo (Todd Hermanson), completely dazzled me with his outburst of an utterly mad and hopeless diatribe that seemed to last for at least six minutes until Lucky and the logic of what he was saying both imploded in a staggering fashion. It was a brilliant moment and I want to congratulate Mr. Vanderzee specifically for such a chutzpah execution of Beckett’s words.
I found the forestry setting that Estragon and Vladimir found themselves waiting in, to be a beautiful cog in the wheel of this production, with a set that is effectively minimal; the lighting is elemental, and the sound design is subtle, encapsulating how fundamental Samuel Beckett’s script really is, impressively. My favorite detail of the sound design was its subdued undertones of pervading ominous gloom that crept up slowly and creepily, as the spoken revelations of the five characters sometimes derailed into the play’s curious preoccupation with existential dread.
It is easy to see how Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has stayed popular for so long. It is a brilliantly written play, one that inspires an incessant need to be understood, yet so boldly throws away the key to its treasure chest of eternal truth, that may not even be there. Does that make the play an endless exasperation? No, because it is damn funny and most importantly, human. The Northwest Classical Theatre created a production that balanced this legendary script’s contradictory aspects so well; it is as invested in the audience’s heart as well as their heads.
Waiting for Godot is endearing, hilarious, puzzling, frustrating, and altogether illuminating for those with philosophical-pondering tendencies, and I’d see it two or three more times if Shoebox Theatre allowed it.
I find it to be of value to my precious, fleeting time, in fact.