Subterranean Shakespeare opened an oddly cheerful staging Friday at La Val’s of "Waiting for Godot," Samuel Beckett’s bleak comedy that is one of the original anti-plays of the theater of the absurd.
Composed initially in French by the Irish writer, "Godot" opened in Paris in 1953 and took the literary community by storm, changing forever the meanings, sensibilities and structures of modern drama. This play had the same magnitude of impact on drama that Picasso had on painting.
In many ways, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is the most influential playwright of the 20th century. His stripped down minimalist, existential style influenced many playwrights who followed him — Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Tom Stoppard, to name a few.
Beckett's plays ask the big questions: "Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Who am I?" Many of his characters are people facing death.
Though bleak, the plays are also funny. Against all of their negative experience, Beckett's characters hope to survive. Beckett himself lived with depression all his life.
In "Waiting for Godot," a quintessential 20th century story, two shabby tramps Vladimir (Stanley Spenger) and Estragon (Greg Lucey) kill time as best they can loitering on an empty landscape in some vague and unidentified territory, waiting for a man who may or may not arrive.
This play is a metaphor for the desperately unfulfilled and meaningless 20th century life. The clown tramps are toxic mutations of Chaplin’s clown tramp, which obviously was an influence on Beckett when he wrote this play.
The tramps’ isolation is broken up for a short time by the arrival of a rich man named Pozzo, played untypically in this production by a woman (Karen Goldstein). Pozzo leads on a leash her shattered, numb, tortured and incoherent servant Lucky (George Frangides), who carries her baggage and suffers her abuse.
The Sub Shakes production is a mixed bag. For whatever reason, director Yoni Barkan has chosen to stage the play at a fast clip.
In other productions I’ve seen of this play, the banter between Vladimir and Estragon, is usually played slowly and thoughtfully, with lots of silent time between lines for the philosophical ramifications of the two tramps’ suffering and comic commentaries on life to sink in.
This slower pace gives the characters time to ponder their predicament line by line, and gives the actors comic opportunity to react pointedly to each idea they consider.
Barkan’s fast pace, on the other hand, often gives these tramps the feel of an Abbott and Costello routine. Initially, I found this off-putting, though in some ways it grew on me as the production evolved. There are places where this speed enhances the play, such as in a funny argument between Vladimir and Estragon over conflicting crucifixion accounts in the Bible.
But there are also minuses to the fast pace. It negates, for example, the painful feeling of waiting that the characters suffer in this play. It also at times costs the play some of its humor by glossing over its delicious ironies and paradoxes.
Barkan’s visually intriguing stylized set features a tree made of metal piping that looks like it was lifted out of a Fernand Leger painting. A Dali-like empty landscape painting by Irina Mikhalevich hangs on the wall as a reminder of the surreal surrounding landscape. A trashed television set serves occasionally as a seat for Estragon when he needs to remove his ill-fitting boots and massage his sore feet.
In an unusual acting choice, Stanley Spenger plays Vladimir as warm, friendly, nurturing and almost cheerful. This is an atypical interpretation of that normally grim and depressed character.
And Barkan’s choice to cast a woman as Pozzo, in a play that is usually performed by all men, puts a potentially interesting spin on the play’s abusive dominating character. But nothing more is made of it, so I think ultimately this casting choice trivializes the dynamic of a story which, on a gender politics level, is generally about the desolate dead end realized in a world that is controlled, empowered and conceived by only men.
Sub Shakes untypical high-speed staging of "Waiting for Godot" runs at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., through Feb. 5. $10 (general), $8 (students). 510/234-6046.