Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bordering On the Miraculous: Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot

Stephen Ouimette (Didi) and Tom Rooney (Gogo) in Jennifer Tarver's Waiting for Godot (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay entitled Being and Nothingness, an existential exploration of human consciousness that in turn had been heavily influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1927 book, Being in Time. The celebrated French thinker had devoured it while a prisoner of war during 1941 and 1942. Ideas of human existence as a state of free-fall, untethered from God, were clearly a part of the early twentieth century zeitgeist. But giving them vivid expression – and lasting relevance – was Irish-born playwright, Samuel Beckett, whose play Waiting For Godot is being and nothingness made flesh.

Originally written in French as En Attendant Godot (literally, While Waiting for Godot), and given its first performance at a small theatre in Paris in 1953, the play is essentially two acts of interminable waiting for an elusive character named Godot by two clownish tramps named Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi). A famous early review described Waiting for Godot as being about “nothing happening, twice.” But as can be seen in the superb production of the play now playing at Canada’s Stratford Festival through to Sept. 20, a lot, in fact, does happen. And happens in a way to make you really think.

To pass the time, the characters talk a lot of life as well as death. They explore their pains and their sorrows. They muse on the futility of their own existence, threatening to end it by hanging from a tree. But then they soldier on, despair melting into hope just as quickly as hope frays into despair. Their banality is cyclical. Like Sisyphus, the mythological king condemned for his chronic deceitfulness to roll a boulder up a hill only to see it come crashing down, his punishment to repeat his actions endlessly without reward or respite, together Gogo and Didi embody the absurdity, if not the futility of life.

Director Jennifer Tarver
The wonderful Stratford actors Tom Rooney and Stephen Ouimette play Gogo and Didi respectively, and director Jennifer Tarver draws out of them a spirited acting style that is by turns slapstick and tragic. Recently appointed artistic director of Toronto's Necessary Angel Theatre, Tarver is the the 45-year old award winning director and daughter of American playwright Ben Tarver. She punctuates their outlandish antics with long periods of silence and inactivity, presenting them almost as non-verbal question marks. These lacunae are clever in not only giving the text a lightness and transparency that other productions have tended to lack. The dramatic holes, so to speak, underscore the play’s fixation with the notion that life is empty of meaning. As Didi says, “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

And yet Tarver doesn’t direct the play as tragedy. Even the brutal scenes involving the celebrated American actor Brian Dennehy, a long-time associate of Tarver whose previous Stratford productions have included her brilliant version of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, are characterized by sparkling wit and tour-de-force acting bordering on the miraculous. Dennehy plays Pozzo, the terrible tyrant who holds his slave, the darkly ironically named Lucky (Randy Hughson), by a rope tied so thickly around his neck it has created an open sore. Pozzo calls him pig and hog, deliberately dehumanizing him. It is the play’s one true moment of horror. Often with this production, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

In the excellent program notes, it is revealed that Beckett knew the depths of human cruelty first-hand. A French scholar who had first moved to Paris after graduating from Trinity College in 1927, teaching English there and also assisting fellow Irishman James Joyce with research for Finnegan’s Wake, Beckett had joined the underground French Resistance and as result of passing secrets from the Nazis was persecuted by Hitler’s armies throughout the duration of the war. He was never captured, but it is tempting to think that his portrayal of the bestial Pozzo, so debonair in his travelling coat and insistence on wine with dinner, the bones of which he scatters to the ground for minions to suck on, is an over-the-top portrait of atrocities witnessed during wartime.

In other words, and as Tarver’s play makes clear, Waiting For Godot is rooted in reality. It is not a philosophical treatise per se, even though rife with philosophical musings. It is not abstract. Godot, for instance, so often interpreted as some kind of metaphor for God – always keeping people waiting for the end – is here shorn of this weighty identity to appear more as a guy who frustratingly can’t keep an appointment. Gogo is determined to wait for him while Didi makes no secret of how agonizing a prospect it is to him. Didi is the pessimist, the Gogo the optimist when he says, “We always find something, eh Didi, to let us think we exist?” Pozzo and Lucky are more diabolically portrayed as what happens when even the civility shared among bums is allowed to deteriorate. Pozzo later grows blind, perhaps as a form of retribution, and Gogo wonders aloud if that means the despot can now look into the future. The otherwise mute Lucky, said by Pozzo to be dumb, in one instance is made to talk and what comes out of his mouth is spewing of words, mind-numbing contractual descriptions and legalese along with a glimpse of pale and luminous sky slashed through with a repeated "quaquaquaqua" such as when he says, “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....”

Randy Hughson (Lucky) left, with Rooney, Ouimette, and Dennehy (Pozzo). (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Whatever does it mean? That’s the question scholars, theatregoers and likely people of the theatre themselves have been asking ever since Godot made its debut 60 years ago. Tarver, however, doesn’t look to provide an answer. Her primary response to the material at hand is to play it as farce. This is what makes her production so refreshing, and also so – dare we say? – meaningful.

Airing the play’s philosophical musings through spirited acting, Tarver has created a version of Waiting for Godot that while faithful to the original text is not bookish, dated or dry. It is intensely alive. Incongruously, she achieves this by emphasizing the play's artifice, its innate theatricality. The set she has commissioned from Teresa Przybylski, a designer who this season divides her time between the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, consists of a thin white island of denuded earth on which stands a forlorn tree made of metal and sprouting a single fabric leaf. The sun overhead is a matted plastic orb suspended from the end of a chain attached to a mechanized hook that clanks loudly into focus to signal the start and end of a bout of interminable waiting. Lighting designer Kimberly Purtell’s lends it a sickly blue-yellow glow that casts jaundiced shadows across the stage. Save for Gogo frequently sprinting off-stage to relieve his aching prostate and Dido constantly threatening to run away, the characters are confined to this ersatz landscape where the only thing really growing to bursting is tedium.

This is their tragedy, to be anchored to “this bitch of an earth” where they are “bored to death.” And yet they don’t die. They pull on their boots and pull them off again, day in and day out, the artificial sun turning into a false moon, and back again. Day in. Day out. And in the end what they have? A flawed but also achingly poignant existence. There might not be a God – or a Godot for that matter. But there is this thing called life, by turns funny and tragic, and that is worth something. It is certainly worth a trip to Stratford. Tarver’s Waiting for Godot more than marks the time. It is art that matters.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check outwww.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates.

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