When it premiered in 1953 it shocked the world. Audiences and critics were dumbfounded, and thespians knew their art had changed forever. According to one of those first critics, "We were waiting for this play of our time." 60 years later, the shock might have worn off, but Marin Theatre Company's production, under the direction of Jasson Minadakis, proves that Waiting for Godot is just as fascinating, provocative, unknowable, and exasperating as it's always been.
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To get a plot summary, you needn't look much further than the title itself. Vladimir, or Didi (Mark Bedard), and Estragon, or Gogo (Mark Anderson Phillips), spend the play waiting for Godot, who -- I'm hoping this won't be a spoiler for anyone -- never shows up. Godot has been construed, among other things, as God (an interpretation Beckett rails against), death, and a figment of Didi's and Gogo's imaginations.
There are suggestions that Godot is a real person -- Didi recalls that Godot asked them to wait, and a boy (Sam Novick and Lucas Meyers, who alternate in the role) who brings messages from Godot indicates that he's seen the titular figure. Yet there are also signs that Godot isn't "real" at all. Didi and Gogo can never seem to remember the details of their planned meeting, or of the time when they found out about their meeting, and the messenger boy claims that Godot does "nothing." The play suggests that Godot sends his regrets every day but still bids Didi and Gogo to wait one more day; they stay that they might be "saved" or so that they won't be "punished."
Still, who Godot is and why they're waiting for him isn't so much the point of the play as the waiting itself. Didi and Gogo pass time in a world where the best food one can hope for is a carrot, and where beatings, blindings, and enslavement could befall one at any moment, for any reason. Sometimes they are aided in their time-biding by Pozzo (James Carpenter) and Lucky (Ben Johnson, who moves as though he's emerging from the primordial soup), a master and his slave who come, stop a while to gnaw on meat, and "go on" -- though to where, or whether there's a "where," is unknown.
Yet most of the time it's just Didi and Gogo. Sometimes the two clowns (they're modeled after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton) come up with diversions: Didi sings, they consider hanging themselves on the tree (a moribund willow overrun with a spongy fungus, designed by Liliana Duque-Piñeiro), they iterate well-worn conversations -- like whether they'd be better off apart -- and comment on the success or failure of those conversations as time-passing efforts.
Yet entertaining as the antics often are, the production makes the audience wait along with the characters, an extraordinarily difficult task for spectators schooled in the relentless forward motion of traditional drama. We chafe at prolonged silences and indirection. Godot seems to us a bad play, one whose nonsensical lines could cease at any time and you'd not know the difference. And we're not wrong -- under a certain set of rules.
Godot places an especially large burden on its actors. They must let us feel their boredom -- terrifying territory for any actor -- but they must also be masters in clowning, with the chemistry to maximize the physical comedy possibilities in stage directions like, "They remain motionless, then together make a sudden rush towards the wings. Estragon stops halfway, runs back, picks up the carrot, stuffs it in his pocket, runs to rejoin Vladimir who is waiting for him, stops again, runs back, picks up his boot, runs to rejoin Vladimir."
Bedard and Phillips are both skilled comic actors, and granted, their characters are totally different people. Didi is the comic straight man -- seeking truth and order, seizing authority -- and Gogo is his foil: sillier, coarser, less intelligent. Yet their comic rhythms don't quite make music. Bedard's Didi approaches his absurd situation with the curiosity of a troubled scientist; every new event or revelation upends his understanding of his incomprehensible universe, and he is always ruminating, dissecting, piecing back together.
Phillips's Estragon, by contrast, who is all swagger and broad gesture, seems to know what he'll do before he does it; his lines and his movements adhere to some preset clock. Rather than approach the same moment from different perspectives, the characters are approaching different moments from different perspectives. They create two universes onstage; one -- especially when it's one as difficult but ultimately rewarding as Beckett's -- would have been preferable.
Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Admission is $36-$57.