“Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett’s classic meditation on existential angst, is traditionally a stark affair, performed on a nearly empty stage, save for something representing a tree and perhaps a rock, with colorless costumes and black bowler hats, a blank backdrop and soundless interludes. The empty feel of the piece normally matches the stripped down nature of the language and, in turn, the nothingness of the scenery usually reflects the void the characters confront throughout the play.
The current production at the Arvada Center’s black box theater, directed by Geoffrey Kent, instead opts for entertainment value: This “Godot” buzzes with frenetic activity, presents a stage stocked with industrial objects and a water feature, offers lively costumes in a variety of colors, a warm, colorful backdrop that hints at a moon, and soft recorded music between scenes.
Perhaps the producers were afraid to test the patience of the local audience? This version plays to the senses in a way “Godot” purists will distrust.
And yet the result is absorbing and quite satisfying.
Here an emphasis on vaudevillian antics, including physical shtick reminiscent of the Marx brothers, offsets the difficulty of the philosophical exploration. Particularly in the first act, silliness eclipses the desperation and pointlessness. By the second act, when aching emptiness really kicks in, the darker, more disturbing tones take hold.
Thanks to fine, bittersweet performances by Sam Gregory as Vladimir and Timothy McCracken as Estragon, knocking about as perfect vaudevillians — as well as smart work by Sam Gilstrap as a flamboyant Pozzo and Josh Robinson as the pathetic Lucky, depicting a sado-masochistic relationship — the power of Beckett’s words beams through. The actors’ chemistry is first-rate, finding desperation beneath the comedy. The physical frills ultimately don’t dilute the profound despair at the heart of the play. The production packs a wallop.
Gregory’s comic timing and loose limbs recall Steve Martin (who played Vladimir in a 1988 revival, opposite Robin Williams as Estragon). Gregory and McCracken are agile on the Laurel-and-Hardy-esque antics. Director Kent, a veteran director of fight scenes, has choreographed the physical interactions as a mash up of pain and whimsy. The characters make use of all corners of the theater, and yet, of course, there’s no way out. We’re stuck, waiting for Godot.
“That passed the time,” Vladimir says.
“It would have passed in any case,” Estragon replies.
“Yes, but not so rapidly.”
Audiences have been theorizing about Beckett’s intent since his “tragicomedy” was first performed in the 1950s. Is the absent Godot meant to be God, or is that too literal? Is it human compassion that’s missing? Some seize on the play’s Christian themes, some focus on the obsession with time, sex, loneliness or the co-dependent relationships of the all-male cast.
However you choose to interpret it, the work is a lasting conundrum.
Gregory and McCracken are terrific, their pathos true to the original words, no matter what tinkering has been done to warm the set or mute the bleakness. This “Godot” more than passes the time.
“Waiting for Godot” 3 1/2 (three and a half stars)