The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

“Nothing Is More Real Than Nothing”


Beckett Plays Well at The Venue

Samuel Beckett’s classic, Waiting for Godot—a long play about nothing—opened at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk Friday night (Oct. 14), as an earnest cast tackled the difficult script with enough gusto to make it work. If, that is, you don’t mind sitting through two-and-a-half hours about nothing.

Then again, is it really about nothing? It says it is—several times, cleverly and often eloquently. But if Beckett really means that, you must conclude that, to him, nothing is something worth talking about. And talking, and talking. Beckett was Irish, guaranteeing a certain amount of blarney well fermented in a no-nonsense Roman Catholic education.

He was also a disciple-friend of his countryman, novelist James Joyce. They met in 1928 in Paris, the cultural capital of the west between the world wars, and hung out together off and on with other writers and artists until Joyce’s death in 1941. Their experience, shaped by a Catholic education followed by the First World War, the excesses of the jazz age, and the Great Depression, gave rise to a kind of nihilism based in the perception that life is essentially meaningless—so much so as to be absurd.

And if nothing else Waiting for Godot, first produced in Paris in 1953, is absurd.

Two homeless tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, occupy an undefined space with a bench and a spindly tree, waiting for Godot to come. Instead, after a time, a pompous capitalist, Pozzo, shows up, dragging his slave, Lucky, behind him on a rope. Foolishness reigns, conversations go nowhere, clich├ęs fly like spit balls, all manner of human pretensions are mocked, slapstick pratfalls abound. There’s even a fart joke in Act II.

But, of course, it’s all quite serious. This is modern life, a Chaplinesque comi-tragedy of a humanity whose meaningless lives are but a blip in the eternity of an indifferent universe. We are born in a graveyard and the best we can do is find a way to entertain ourselves until we disappear. If, like Estragon and Vladimir, we have each other, it’s an addiction more than a free choice. As the two hobos say more than once, they’re happiest when they’re not together.

It’s good to live in a city where we can see this theatrical museum piece performed in a miniature theater that must be reminiscent of its first production. Director Denise Dillard has done a sophisticated job of mounting it. Viewing it is so much like looking into a time gone by that we can almost imagine the French Gestapo patrolling 35th Street outside. And there is much that applies to our situation today in the U.S.—the poverty and abuse rampant in a decaying, unequal society, the sense of chaos and madness lurking in every silence.

But it’s hard to avoid saying that it’s all a bit tedious. Some people seem to enjoy that. I never particularly have.

Dillard offsets the tedium a bit with periodic pauses in the onstage action while readers sitting to the right and left of the stage provide biographical and historical information. An actor portraying Beckett himself occasionally appears to add the author’s take on life and art. Some of what he says essentially explains the play, as in “Nothing is more real than nothing.” These interludes are helpful in filling out the play’s context.

The program notes inform us that this is a “workshop/documentary style production,” with one of the readers, Anna Sosa, also serving as prompter. Her services were frequently required by all the actors, which, it must be said, slowed things down when they’d already become tedious.

However, despite tedium, despite nothingness, despite inconsequential dialogue and virtually no plot, the actors make it entertaining enough to win our affection for their hopeless plight. Henry D’Alonzo and Mike Zeigler as Vladimir and Estragon have a winning chemistry together. Bill Armstrong’s exalted pomposity as Pozzo fulfills the character’s absurd ego-mania, and Andrei Fedyszyn’s portrayal of Lucky, with its schizoid personality shift from abject, faceless slave to babbling intellectual and back again, almost steals the show.

In a minor role, Matt Cole is affecting as the boy-messenger sent in at the end of each of the two acts to report to the tramps that Godot won’t be coming today but will come tomorrow. Cole also doubles as Beckett in the narrative breaks, while Tiffany Armstrong is the second off-stage reader.

Credit must certainly go to Anna Sosa for the authenticity of her costumes and to Aliki Pantas for her careful and precise lighting design.

And who is Godot?

Obviously, Godot is God, or at least the god the author was promised by the Church, and those poor souls who wait for him wait in vain.

If Beckett is to your taste—or even if he isn’t—you can see him well replicated in this faithful Venue production which runs through Oct 23—Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12—students and seniors $10. For reservations or more information, call 757-469-0337.