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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 301-303

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Waiting for Godot. By Samuel Beckett. American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, San Francisco. 25 October 2003.

If Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso were locked together in a theater, the result just might be the American Conservatory Theater's revival of Waiting for Godot. This production of Samuel Beckett's classic, which has become an exemplar of absurdist theatre, made an intriguing foray into intertextuality—well beyond the customary homage to vaudevillian comedy and Chaplin films implicit in the many pratfalls and verbal non-sequiturs of Beckett's tramps. The scenery of J.B. Wilson—a drywall backdrop with a huge rectangle cut out of it; a zigzagging ramp cutting between the low mound and woeful tree; and an additional proscenium, gold and ornate, that literally framed the action of the stage—suggested the baffling geometry of a cubist painting. The effect was both disorienting and compelling, especially when the glowing moon rose within that rectangle, as the day, along with the hopes of Didi and Gogo, faded toward night, simultaneously suggesting an enormous doorknob (the possibility of escape from interminable waiting?) and a train-light in a tunnel (imminent, or even immanent, doom?). Cubism's valuing of abstract form and radically fragmented objects over realistic detail, in effect, became a visual metaphor for Beckett's disavowal of theatrical realism and doubled the opacity of a play that, like Lucky's thinking or Godot's identity, confounds straightforward explication.

This intersection of theatrical absurdism and cubism was particularly fruitful under the artistic direction of Carey Perloff, who recently celebrated her eleventh season with ACT. Perloff wonderfully appropriated cubism's rejection of mimesis to emphasize the (anti)conventions of absurdist theatre; character, plot, and language were frequently little more than abstract shapes within a three-dimensional canvas. The overall action of the play defied simple explanation since it was framed—literally—as an imitation of a painting that imitates nothing. Yet Perloff continually interrogated the limits of the cubist metaphor by having the actors break the frame of the painting, as well as the fourth wall of theatrical realism. Peter Frechette as Didi and Gregory Wallace as Gogo did much of their acting at the edge of the stage, stressing the artificiality of any frame. The actors delivered many lines and made frequent gestures directly to the audience, compelling us to recognize that we are imitating the events on stage (instead of vice versa): we too are attempting to find meaning during an afternoon of our lives. Any meaning was continually exploded or rendered absurd, perhaps most humorously, when Gogo's boots and Lucky's hat remained outside the curtain and spotlighted between acts—a bizarre double-synecdoche for the opacity of Beckett's play.

Frank Wood's Lucky was, by far, the standout performance. Wood's body was, during the entirety of his time onstage during the first act, a metaphor for human frailty. His eyes were always wide open in what was a combination of terror and anguish; his mouth was continually open and drooling, doubling not just Gogo's bodily hunger for carrots and chicken bones but also Didi's metaphysical hunger for hope or salvation. The trembling of his arms and legs, which continued unabated, was impressive both for his considerable stamina and as an expression of the existential condition of the characters, all of whom were struggling, however futilely, to move, to believe, to be. Simultaneously, Wood brought complexity and some depth to this daunting role, often through subtle gestures. During his dance, his eyes were full of the joy of self-expression, even if only momentarily; during his thinking, his voice overflowed with the desperate need to articulate not [End Page 301] just his thoughts but himself. These gestures were almost heroic, like the protagonist defiantly raising his head in Catastrophe.

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Figure 1
Gregory Wallace as Estragon and Peter Frechette as Vladimir take solace in one another's company, as they wait for the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Godot. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Frechette, Wallace, and Steven Anthony...


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