BACK STAGE WEST
February 24, 2000
at the Matrix Theatre
There are plays, and then there's Waiting for Godot. It can be done as a play, and director Andrew J. Robinson's new production at the Matrix Theatre is nothing if not an intelligently mounted great play. But at its weirdest, windiest heights, Beckett's unruly 1952 masterpiece is so much more--an intellectual vaudeville, a clown tragedy, a piece of music stuck in a strangely familiar groove, an epic poem and an epic prank--and this Matrix Godot reaches those levels, as well. On the strength of Robinson's undistracted vision and not one but two ideal and tirelessly creative casts (as is the doubled-up Matrix way), this is the sort of definitive, deeply faithful staging of an over-analyzed classic that sandblasts away any academic encrustation even as it bears up to nearly scholarly scrutiny itself.
Robinson and his eight extraordinary actors play it "straight"--which in the case of Godot is inevitably, gloriously crooked. They bring its queer, gamboling slapstick, its perverse wisdom, its amnesiac comic rhythms, its sinister suggestions, and its moving helplessness to full theatrical life. An outwardly uneventful play full of absurd feints and turns, small betrayals and dubious victories, it is charged here with an almost unbearable urgency--unbearable, apropos Beckett, precisely because the play's antagonists, in life as in the theatre, are boredom, pain, repetition, forgetfulness, insignificance. This is a play, and a production, that conjures wrenching drama out of the comic absence of drama.
Under J. Kent Inasy's witty lighting, on Victoria Profitt's deftly rendered middle-of-nowhere set--less like a pure void than an evocatively banal, faintly Old West setting, like a Krazy Kat strip or a Roadrunner backdrop--the knockabout vagrants Vladimir (Gregory Itzin, David Dukes) and Estragon (Robin Gammell, John Vickery) bicker and fret the evenings away, left to their own desperate devices of diversion except for a pair of visits by the blowhard Pozzo (Granville Van Dusen, Tony Amendola) and his wizened slave Lucky (Alastair Duncan, JD Cullum), as well as an opaque message from a small boy (Willie Itzin, Will Rothhaar).
The actors are all seasoned and well cast enough to seem both iconic and in-our-face, evoking acting traditions from burlesque to the Method without ever seeming a jumble. In the central role of the hope-damaged Vladimir, Itzin and Dukes contrast in both physical and intellectual approach--Itzin's is engagingly bipolar, a sad-sack control freak, while Dukes' is a well-meaning coward for whom thought is visible strain. With the childlike but wary tramp Estragon, the differences are more shaded: Gammell is more simple and pathetic, Vickery more prickly and petulant. As Pozzo, Van Dusen is an otherworldly vision of uncomprehending brutality, dusted lightly with civilization (kudos here to Maggie Morgan's all-around flawless costumes), while Amendola declaims him as a bitter dandy who's less frightening than simply unpleasant. Duncan plays Lucky as a strange, sad, pent-up beast, while Cullum gives the put-upon menial a bird-like alertness and turns Lucky's famous unpunctuated monologue into an aria of emphatic nonsense.
Perhaps most startling about the experience of this Godot is how instantly recognizable the world of the play is. But from where? From Sennett comedies or Bunuel phantasms? From dreams? From our (tread lightly, now) collective unconscious? This is the kind of universal, quasi-religious space Godot occupies. And the fraught antics of this spare, soulful, queasily funny production measure, with unflinching theatrical precision, how much can be done when there's nothing to be done.
"Waiting for Godot," presented by Joseph Stern at the Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 3-Apr. 30. $15-27.50. (323) 852-1445.