THEATER: Yo, Godot! We’re Still Waiting …

Beckett Fest captures what makes Sammy run

Steve Bornfeld

"Nothing to be done"

—Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

So Sammy B. wasn't much for irony, which is, after all, the refuge of empty cleverness for those afraid to confront actual emotion.

Existential hopelessness was more his motif.

But I had to smirk (genuine irony demands no less) while inserting the final jack into its input receptacle to complete installation of my digital cable just before heading downtown to Test Market's Samuel Beckett Festival at SEAT, this night featuring the late playwright's meandering masterpiece of meaningfulness—and lack thereof—Waiting for Godot. (The festival also offers Beckett works Act Without Words, Krapp's Last Tape, Play and Rough for Radio at separate performances.)

"You don't know if you're unhappy or not?"

In this techno-age, nothing feels as quaintly irrelevant, and as absolutely necessary, as Beckett's questioning of human purpose. Not rented from Blockbuster, but live, on a stage. Nothing seems as topical in the grip of often unfathomable terrorism, mass death and instant carnage than his sometimes impenetrable pondering of why we're all here. Nothing says "back to basics" like Beckett. Nothing confronts nothingness like Godot.

For the uninitiated, think of Godot as the ultimate Seinfeld episode.

"There's no lack of void."

Waiting for Godot is one of those plays I blithely ridiculed in my callous youth, distinguished, as callous youth tends to be, by limited thinking, a conveniently parochial worldview and an arrogance that declares, I know everything I'll ever need to know to skate through the world unmolested by unhappiness. But as life presses on, as meaning grows harder to grasp, purpose trickier to recognize and your smugness is smashed into shards of utter confusion, Godot's nonsensical existentialism begins to make monumental sense, precisely because it doesn't.

Allegory of all allegories, Godot is the allegoriest. Within its absurdity resides theater's most clearheaded depiction of the world.

"Will night never come?"

And Test Market's Godot shimmers with solid-gold performances by leads Ernest Hemmings and T.J. Larsen, and stellar support from Eugene Kirk, Joel Waymann and Layne Montgomery, smartly directed by Akiko Matsushita.

"Tell him that you saw us ... You did see us, didn't you?"

Attempting to explain Waiting for Godot is one of the early symptoms of insanity, but let's take a whack at it:

Famously, the eternally debated play is an intellectual, spiritual, religious and dramatic Rorschach test, as fascinating as it is maddening. Two derelicts, Vladimir (Hemmings) and Estragon (Larsen) wait by a tree for Godot. Who is Godot? Maybe God. Maybe time. Maybe nothingness. Maybe time ticking down toward nothingness. Maybe anything you'd like it to be.

"We always find something to give us the impression we're alive."...

In what could be interpreted as a daily struggle just to pass the time amid the hopelessness of their lives, the pair play verbal games and try mind exercises, questioning, even insulting one another, and consider suicide by hanging themselves from the tree, while they wait for Godot.

Their tedium is interrupted bv Pozzo (Kirk), an overbearing, whip-wielding taskmaster, dragging his haggard servant/slave, Lucky (Waymann), on a leash. They represent (if you like) humankind's oppressor and oppressed. Pozzo eventually goes blind—as in blind to the world around him—and the mute Lucky can't protest his horrendous treatment.

Or (if you like), perhaps Lucky is in fact aptly named because his actions are automatically determined by Pozzo, relieving him of the burden of thought and choice, while Pozzo must constantly find ways not only to pass time himself, but occupy Lucky's, as well. Or, well, whatever you like.

"Dance, misery, dance!

Vladimir and Estragon conduct a kind of philosophical debate with Pozzo and try puzzling out Lucky's existence, masked by Beckett's outwardly ordinary give-and-take dialogue. Occasionally, a young boy (Montgomery) appears as a representative of Godot to inform Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not come today, but assuredly will tomorrow.

Oddly, the other characters never remember the pair from encounter to encounter—the ephemeral uselessness of it all (if you like)—so Vladimir and Estragon desperately need one another to remind them of each other's existence. (People, to quote the Babster ... people who need people ...)

Got it? No? Good. That's partly the point.

"I asked you something. Did you reply?"

Given Test Market's avant-garde proclivities, anything Beckett is, of course, approaching gospel, and this production shouts it with fervor.

Hemmings and Larsen do confusion with conviction. Affecting goggle-eyed dismay and delight, Hemmings perfectly counters Larsen, whose balletic, Chaplinesque physicality, array of expressions, and reactive dexterity add richness to the proceedings.

"I don't seem able to depart."

In a performance as close to operatic without going all Pavarotti, Kirk—who could slice enough ham to threaten Hormel's bottom line—brings a glowering, imperial authority to Pozzo, but laced wth a comic twinkle. Strutting and barking in a waistcoat dotted with military insignia, Kirk's outsized persona is a snug fit for the absurdly bellowing character.

"I don't know why I don't know."

Waymann turns in a brave portrayal as Lucky. Nearly nude in a demeaning leather harness, he's a bedraggled shell of humankind, perpetually abused, exhausted and collapsed on the ground—who then stunningly bursts to articulate life in a mesmerizing, motormouth monologue. (The unrealized potential of the oppressed? If you like.) Of course, he inevitably slides backward into his subservient stupor. And in the small role of Godot's messenger of infinite delay, young Montgomery holds his own against Hemmings' increasingly incredulous Vladimir.

"What do we do now that we are happy?"..."Wait for Godot." ... "Godot will surely be here tomorrow." ... "What does he do, Mr. Godot?" ... "He does nothing, sir."..."What if we gave him up?" ... "He'll punish us." ... "I can't go on like this." ... "We'll hang ourselves tomorrow, unless Godot comes."

I checked my watch to note that the evening, with a 10-minute respite, clocked in at nearly two and a half hours. But glancing at the time seems a jarring notion after watching and waiting for the timeless Godot.

"On. ..."

With apologies for the irony, I headed back home to link my TV to my new DVD-VCR and search my PC for DVR bargains. ... On, indeed.

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