When I first head that Seattle's Arts on the Waterfront was offering a free run of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s notoriously challenging absurdist play, I was skeptical. Godot is difficult, even for veteran performers and professional theater companies, let alone a group of young actors, all of whom are in their early-to-mid 20s. Within the first 10 minutes of the play I was transfixed and incredibly impressed. The actors embody their buffoonish characters, using humor to address philosophical questions regarding time, religion, politics and poverty. This stellar intellectual play was performed with quick wit, near-perfect timing and smooth physicality.
Godot opens with two vagrants—the dull and dependent Estragon (Spencer Hamp) and the slightly more intelligent Vladimir (Jay Myers)— sitting under a tree waiting for a man named Godot, whom they have never met. They duo don’t know why they are waiting for him, and to pass the time they talk, argue, sleep and contemplate suicide. When a man and his slave pass through, Vladimir and Estragon mistake him for Godot, only to learn that his name is Pozzo (Ben Phillips) and his slave is Lucky (Nate Pringle). Pozzo decides to rest for a while, eat and engage in philosophical discourse with Estragon and Vladimir. Eventually the three force Lucky to entertain them by dancing and thinking. After Pozzo and Lucky leave, a messenger arrives to say that, “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.” The next day Vladimir and Estragon find themselves under the same tree when Pozzo (now blind) and Lucky (now dumb) once again arrive, but don’t know the other two. After they leave the messenger appears once again to tell them that Godot is not coming, sending Vladimir into a tailspin of existential musings.
The setting—on the pier between the aquarium and the Big Wheel—is spectacular. The production starts during late evening when the sky is still light, and continues through dusk until two simple spotlights illuminate the actors. Between the ferries, birds, light show on the Big Wheel and the brilliant sunset, concentration is a bit difficult. Director Bobbin Ramsey stays true to the stage directions in Beckett’s script (and there are a lot of them), and all four characters move through the play, at times capturing the clownish gestures that emphasize the absurdity of the play, while other interactions (when Vladimir tries to cover Estragon with newspaper while he sleeps) demonstrate the compassion of human connection. The relationship between Estragon and Vladimir is laughable (it's meant to be) but Hamp and Myers exhibit an empathetic friendship in their characters—even when they say they are going to go their own ways, each one is unable to leave the other.
The use of young actors—especially Vladimir and Estragon, who are dressed in torn jeans, ragged shirts and grungy caps—makes the production visually casual, contrasting to the high-minded dialogue, adding to the absurd nature of the play.
Waiting for Godot was written in 1953, but the Arts on the Waterfront production makes connections with modern-day issues like economic crisis, homelessness and the competition for competitive and limited employment. Beckett was famously esoteric about explaining the play, which makes it all the more intriguing. Near the end, Vladimir and Estragon discuss their plans for the next day:
VLADIMIR: We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.
ESTRAGON: And if he comes?
VLADIMIR: We’ll be saved.
The religious connotations are impossible to ignore in a play that presents so many open-ended interpretations about time, memory, personal beliefs and existence, but this exchange is a swift and solid ending blow. It doesn’t matter what we believe or how we act, or even if there is a heaven or hell: We will all die, and there really is no escape, because given the pattern of the play, we know that Godot will not come.
Waiting for Godot runs through Sept. 1, and is free to attend. More details here.
Above: Spencer Hamp as Estragon and Jay Myers as Vladimir in Arts on the Waterfront's production of Waiting for Godot.