By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Morris Panych. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until April 23
In this production of Waiting for Godot, nothing makes sense so nothing matters. I think that's exactly wrong-or at least it's a choice that makes for a pretty dull evening. In my understanding of Samuel Beckett's script, meaninglessness is excruciating-and avoidance of it is excruciatingly funny.
The plot is simple. Tramps named Vladimir and Estragon wait for a man named Godot on a road near a tree. In both acts, Pozzo, a tyrant, visits them with his slave Lucky, whom he controls by yanking the rope around Lucky's festering neck. At the end of each act, a boy arrives and says that Godot will not come today, "but surely tomorrow".
There it is, folks: the existential dilemma. We wait for Godot-for God, for meaning-but it never arrives. The road of life is eternally barren and brutal. Hope is a trap that keeps us hanging on like fools. To distract themselves from this hell of vacancy, Vladimir and Estragon play games: they fantasize their own hangings, for instance, pleased with the idea that such a suicide might give them erections.
In Panych's interpretation, the stakes are so low on every front that there's virtually no reason to watch. The script tells us the tramps are subsisting on root vegetables and even those are running out. Arguably, they are starving, but in this production, when Estragon asks for the bones Pozzo has discarded from his ostentatious picnic, he doesn't even seem hungry. The text makes it clear that Vladimir and Estragon are painfully ambivalent about their relationship to one another; they are desperate to escape its tedium but terrified by the thought of losing its small comforts. When they talk of parting, it should be a big deal. Here the feeling rarely goes deeper than petulance.
Because Panych's take on the play almost completely misses its agony, it also misses the great majority of its humour. The tramps drive one another nuts, but their boredom is even worse. That's why it's funny when Estragon caps a particularly rancorous exchange by exclaiming brightly: "That's the idea, let's abuse each other." That line and several other classics pass without a ripple in this mounting.
Very late in Act 2, Vincent Gale (Vladimir) taps into some of the script's painful subtext. Stéphane Demers (Estragon) never does. And neither actor reveals much talent for clowning. Speaking of clowning, Peter Anderson's turn as Lucky is disappointingly superficial. In my reading, this character is tragic, the intellectual and artistic puppet of the bourgeoisie. In any case, he is definitely suffering, but you get very little of that here. Brian Markinson's Pozzo is by far the best thing in the show. Within Panych's muted vision, Pozzo is never the embodiment of cruelty he might be, but the actor nonetheless commands the stage with his powerful presence and sly timing. I also very much enjoyed Cole Heppell's Boy. This 12-year-old performer fills his silences with more meaning than most of the adults on-stage do.
Ken MacDonald's set is pretty but doesn't serve the play particularly well. Godot is about emptiness, but the designer clutters the playing area with debris and jettisons the metaphor of the road. He seems to be going for a kind of music-hall artificiality; when night falls, a flat paper moon glides into place. Juxtaposed with real pain, this might have worked. Even the music-hall sensibility is incomplete, however. The stylized tree, a metal pipe topped by a sphere of leafless branches, is self-consciously abstract.
I've seen exciting interpretations before, but this production left me waiting for a satisfying Godot.