Waiting for Godot

Courtesy of Paul R. Kennedy

Imagine you are lost in an art gallery, inexplicably stuck in a room of hazy landscape paintings. One painting draws you in – two people almost indistinguishable from their murky setting, and the tangled tree branches around them as they stare out at a golden moon. Instead of moving on, the subjects beg you to stay with them. You are captivated by their mystery.

Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s above mentioned painting, “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon,” is often cited as source inspiration for Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Friedrich hides humanity in his paintings of brambly wilderness — a footprint in the snow or the looming silhouette of a cathedral through the fog. Similarly, Beckett’s magnum opus peppers hints of striking truth throughout the strange world of “Godot.”

To be upfront, the beauty of “Godot” doesn’t lie in its story, the likeability of its characters or mineable one-liners. To watch “Godot” is to watch a painting — an ethereal, beautiful, stark, decayed, elegant piece of artifice. To be drawn in rather than baffled by this production is a rare treat, and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts offers just that.

“Godot” opened Friday in the recently renamed Robert Cohen Theatre. Directed by Robert Cohen, the show stars acting MFAs Ben Jacoby as Vladimir (Didi), Chris Klopatek as Estragon (Gogo), Sean Harrigan as Pozzo, and undergraduate actors Hannah Balagot as The Boy and Peter Leibold as Lucky.

The play begins with Gogo alone on the stage, seated on a rock as he tries to pull off his boot. After struggling alone for some time, Didi enters. “Nothing to be done,” says Gogo. “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion,” responds Didi, thus setting the tone of the show from the very start.

The two characters have been meeting every day for what could be up to 60 years, waiting for the unknown Godot. As they wait, they encounter the bombastic Pozzo and his silent slave Lucky, who only thinks upon command. They leave, and the first act concludes after Godot’s Boy arrives to tell Gogo and Didi that Godot cannot come today, “but surely tomorrow.”

The next act begins either the next day or years later with only Didi retaining memory of the previous act. When Pozzo and Lucky come upon them this time, Pozzo is blind. The play concludes just as the first act did, with Godot’s Boy telling Didi that Godot will surely come tomorrow.

When I had to read “Waiting for Godot,” I hated it, but from first stepping into the theater and seeing the traditional one tree, one rock set dressed up with snow banks and cold lighting had me interested. The black box theater had been redressed as a snowy path that led through the audience through telephone poles to an ancient, broken stage. The uncertain passage of time within the play was perfectly complemented by its uncertain setting.

Furthermore, the actors were mesmerizing. Jacoby as Didi is intense — an insightful fool frustrated by his existential discomfort. Klopatek as the confused, forgetful, grumpy Gogo is endearing and blessed with excellent comedic timing.

The two leads balance between intimate friendship and the aggression that arises from forced confinement quite well, portraying moments of affectionate regard and terrifying disconnection. Their constant fight against unseen adversaries around them or within their own minds creates a sense of needing each other yet fearing each others’ nightmares. They are a team that must even commit suicide together or not at all, a team where one cannot sleep because the other will be lonely.

Additionally, Harrigan’s Pozzo and Leibold’s Lucky are perhaps Cohen’s most innovative renditions. Inspired by correspondence between Cohen and Beckett from 50 years ago, Pozzo and Lucky are like twisted spectres of Santa Claus mythos. When poring over the original French in preparation for mounting “Godot” at Berkeley, Cohen discovered lines that had not made it into the English translation. He asked Beckett if he could restore the lines and was granted permission. He also asked about the origin of “knook,” a curious word used to describe Lucky, but never received an answer.

“Only last year I discovered (and no scholar had come up with this before) that a “knook” was a fictional elf in L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,’ ” said Cohen.

Pozzo’s filthy red riding suit and rotund form contrast against Lucky’s sleigh-bell wielding, elf-like countenance and costuming. They enter into the action of the play with Pozzo screaming “On! On!” much like Santa’s “On Dasher, on Blitzen!” Their relationship appears even more twisted than it inherently is and the two actors played this well.

Perhaps the most striking moment in the entire play is delivered by Leibold. When Lucky is commanded to think, he springs to life as the lights fade to red, fog fills the stage and the bleak silence is ruptured by the ominous rumble of things being ripped apart. His nonsensical but somehow profound liturgy grows more and more terrifying, causing the other players on the stage to writhe and the audience to hold its breath. When Didi gets him to stop, the atmosphere of the play is markedly altered.

Though the play is mind-boggling to read, Cohen’s “Godot” is a captivating, oddly touching and enjoyable piece of theater. However, those not interested in drama, literature or even art philosophy may find this show to be akin to torture. Whether Godot is God or the world a stage or whether the play is an existential treatise is up to the individual viewer, making “Godot” a must-see philosophical brain-teaser and a crucial piece of theatrical history that should not be avoided.

As I said earlier, the beauty of “Godot” is not found the same way as in more accessible straight plays. Instead, the magnificence is in the absurd. Godot, like a looming cathedral in the fog, may never arrive but the anticipation he inspires in Gogo and Didi is felt by everyone in the audience. The experience is in the confusion, the discomfort and the peculiarly entrancing nature of the performance.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5