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The Company had been very keen on producing this classic modern work, looking closely at two appropriate roles for David (Vladimir) and Joe (Estragon.) As they planned it, what they lost sight of was the fact that it was an anniversary year for the show, and groups throughout the country were staging it (including one from St. Louis’ Black Repertory Theatre, just months prior to Midnight’s.)

There’s always room for GODOT, however, and the planning went forward. For the first time, the group would work in the St. Marcus Theatre, a church basement space with adequate stage, seating, and technical resources. (The space eventually closed when protests from a few church members concerning certain productions that occurred there forced church elders to make a move.)

GODOT, however, was one of St. Marcus’ finest productions. The Company at first recruited long-term collaborator Milt Zoth to direct, but scheduling conflicts occurred, and the Company turned to Michelle Rebollo, a colleague of David’s as head of the theatre department at St. Louis’ Junior College Meramec campus. Michelle helmed a straight-forward, classic approach to this classic, a contrast to the vaudeville style employed by the Black Rep.

The two shows provided a good mix for St. Louis theatergoers, and attendance and response was only heightened by the proximity of the shows.

Larry Dell as Pozzo and Chris Lawyer as Lucky rounded out the cast (with Larry receiving end-of year award recognition from Post critic Judy Newmark).

Waiting for Godot
Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Friday night, less than a week after "Waiting for Godot" closed at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, Midnight Productions opened its production of the same play. That means St. Louisans who missed their first chance to see a 50th anniversary production of the landmark drama by Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett have another opportunity. The Black Rep production was more nuanced; Midnight's is cooler and more direct. Neither makes this challenging play easy to come to terms with.

Beckett, who was Irish but spent years in Paris, wrote "Godot" in French, and the play retains a peculiar air of translation. It's strange; plays by authors as different as Sophocles, Ibsen, and Chekhov are presented in translation all the time, and it rarely crosses your mind that you aren't hearing the original. But the rhythms of Godot are not the rhythms of ordinary English speech.

They are more familiar as rhythms of poetry. With that in mind, it is perhaps a little easier to reach into this drama, which is more accessible on the page than on the stage. (That may not be so in French.)

The play doesn't have a plot that illuminates a theme. It has a theme, period: In a random universe, how should we live? One character describes life as a woman giving birth over an open grave; the image crystallizes the melancholy underlay of the play. But the action - small, repetitive, sometimes comic, sometimes pathetic - demonstrates that there are, at least, ways to go on.

Two bums, Estragon (Joe Hanrahan) and Vladimir (David Wassilak), are somewhere they have been before, waiting for someone who never shows up. They pass the time lots of ways: singing, quarreling, eating roots. Stumbling through life, they talk about possibilities that don't exist; even suicide seems beyond them.

But there is no doubt these men truly care for each other; they make their pointless lives bearable for one another. The actors, who founded Midnight together, make a good team in terms of direct acting style and physical appearance. Hanrahan is short, Wassilak tall and very thin. It serves the absurdist comedy well. Director Michelle Rebollo emphasizes comedy, too, going for punchy timing. We're waiting, Hanrahan hisses at one point, for Godot. A drum roll wouldn't be out of place.

There's another model of how people live, offered in two strangers who pass by. Pozzo (Larry Dell) is a smug, prosperous man; the ironically named Lucky (Christopher Lawyer) his abused slave. Pozzo keeps him on a rope; he addresses him as pig. This is the way - or at least, one historically popular way - of the world. The play leaves little doubt which pair is better off. If everything is absurd, at least there's some comfort in kind company.

The production, designed by Wassilak, is as spare as the language. The stage is nearly bare - one big rock, one stylized cutout of a tree. The blank walls are lit off-white for daytime, blue for night. Betsy Krausnick designed the requisite costumes: ripped jackets, bowler hats, baggy pants. Twin brothers Colin and Ian Fay round out the cast, alternating as a boy who delivers Godot's messages. Colin Fay, who performed opening night, handled the small role with confidence.

Beckett's Waiting for Godot
Midnight Productions
Reviewed by Steve Callahan

KHDX Radio

St. Louis audiences have had the rare opportunity to see two different quality productions of Waiting for Godot in the same week--first the Black Rep's, and now Joe Hanrahan and David Wassilak with their Midnight Productions company at the St. Marcus. When Godot was first produced, in 1952, it triggered a torrent of critical outrage as well as some praise. One New York critic gave it this terse description: "Nothing happens. Twice." Yet many would say (and I agree) that Godot is the single most influential play of our century. It blends profound existential musings with baggy-pants music hall comedy, serene poetic passages with crude physical humor. In the end we empathize-we even identify with these two shabby, seedy, hopeless, hoping tramps.

Gogo and Didi have spent their wretched lives sleeping in ditches and suffering beatings from strangers. They've come to this desolate place to keep an appointment with Godot, who will determine their fate-in some way they don't clearly understand. They meet Pozzo, a tyrannical master, and Lucky his pitiful slave. They pass the time. Godot fails to come. In Act II the same thing happens--only moreso.

There's not a lot a director can do with Godot other than be faithful to Beckett. Certainly the least step towards a "concept" production would be disastrous. There's a purity in Beckett that must be honored. But there's homework to be done. The sparseness of the text is deceptive; it is in fact quite dense with layers of meaning. Philosophy, theology, ontology are touched on with the conciseness of poetry. That's what this play is, from start to finish-poetry. This production occasionally achieves that sense of poetry, but too often I felt that the director and actors had not taken the time or effort to understand the meaning. Wassilak, especially in the first act, seemed sometimes merely to be saying his lines. There are many aspects to Vladimir; he's a philosopher, occasionally a scolding parent. But he's also a clown--and at times a child. Wassilak never quite lowers his dignity enough to become the clown or child, though his existential angst in the second act is intense and impressive.

Hanrahan gives a rich performance, full of nice detail and physical humor with which he's very comfortable. At times he is the very image of Emmett Kelly--and has a touch of that endearing pathos. If anything there was perhaps a bit too much cleverness in the simple-minded Gogo. But it's a good performance.Larry Dell is strong as Pozzo, giving him a twinkle and charm not usually seen in this character, but which I rather liked.

Neither the Black Rep nor Midnight Productions seemed to understand what to do with Lucky's bizarre and wonderful tirade when he is goaded into "thinking". Christopher Lawyer, who played the role in this production, at least fills it with furious energy, but he makes it a simple, unrelieved crescendo accelerando. This speech, full of philosophical and juridical gobbledy-gook, presents, in a nutshell, mankind's ages-long desperate and futile effort to make sense out of this absurd universe. It must be heavy with meaning--and with structure--starts, stalls, bursts of energy and trailings off--Beckett spells out the dynamics for you--but none of it was here.

So I have reservations about Midnight Productions' Waiting for Godot, but it's still worth your time. Go and see Didi and Gogo confront the cruel joke of this absent God--who created us with such need of meaning in a universe devoid of that quantity.

Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett
Midnight Productions
Reviewed by Bob Wilcox
Riverfront Times

Hamlet said the theater should hold a mirror up to nature. In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett held a mirror up to the world at the middle of the 20th century. In that mirror, humanity saw the glories of Western civilization, glories that had been mocked by the horrors of two world wars, reduced to the image of a pair of tramps scrambling to survive in a desolate wasteland. The tramps think they remember when things were better. Now they exist from day to day on the hope that someone named Godot will show up and give them -- what? They aren't sure. But the hope keeps them going from one day to the next -- tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It's a pointless life -- absurd, to use the word popularized by the existentialist philosophers of the time. And so Beckett's plays became the theater of the absurd.

Theater they are. What could be more theatrical than a couple of baggy-pants comedians going through their routines -- the old tight-shoes bit, the oldmultiple-hats bit. One of them even does the drop-your-baggy-pants bit. Tragic farce, some have called it. For we are in the tragic world of Lear, a world of pointless suffering. But there are no kings and no grandeur in the suffering, just a couple of little guys with sore feet and a urinary-tract infection. No kingdoms are at stake, just another day to be endured until Godot either comes or doesn't come. The clowns stumble around, farcically, but the absurdity keeps shifting from the brightly comic to the darkly tragic.

Beckett has calibrated this action of waiting very carefully. Though his protagonists lead meager lives, their words and activities radiate surprising energy and resonate with implications. Some passages, like the one about the dead voices, achieve a musical quality. Those who know Godot inside out know precisely how these words and actions should be performed, much as they know precisely how Hamlet should be performed or a Beethoven symphony should be played -- what the tempi should be, where the emphases should be placed. No actual performance will ever quite match that ideal.

Given that fact, yes, I think the current staging by Midnight Productions often fails to give full value to the script's pauses and could make more of its transitions. But under Michelle Rebollo's direction, the performers often get the music right. Joe Hanrahan surprised me with the range of his performance as Estragon. I especially like the ways he gives vent to the character's frustrated anger. His Estragon is clearly a man of feeling, of instant response, not reflection.

Vladimir, in contrast, controls his emotions -- it hurts to laugh -- and tries to think things through. I have often been impressed by David Wassilak's ability to imply turbulent inner activity beneath a passive surface. But this time I too often saw just the passive surface and glimpsed the reality of the character beneath it only occasionally.

Not physically imposing, Larry Dell might seem a curious choice for Pozzo, the wealthy, domineering master of the abused servant Lucky. But Dell makes it work by playing Pozzo as a kind of country squire, confident in his superiority, humorous and ironic, only rarely needing to raise his voice. As the suffering servant who delivers a garbled message about God, Christopher Lawyer suffers convincingly. He has chosen to deliver the message like an automaton, with little expression until he grows frantic at the end -- not, for me, the best choice, but certainly a justifiable one. As Godot's messenger, young Colin Fay reacts well in his encounters with the two tramps.

Wassilak's set and lighting create an exact visual image for the play on the small St. Marcus stage -- stark white walls, a jagged black tree and a large rock. Betsy Krausnick has provided costumes realistically appropriate to the characters' stations.

Best of all, this Godot doesn't push either to be funny or to be meaningful. That's as it should be.



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Revised: October, 2007
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