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All or Nothing

Run of The Mill Takes a Tentative Approach With a Bleak Classic

J.G. Heck cracks the whip.

By John Barry | Posted 10/29/2008

Waiting for Godot

By Samuel Beckett

At Theatre Project through Nov. 2

The floor is covered with what looks like copies of textbook pages, in what appears like four separate islands, or icebergs. It could be Waiting for Godot as the northern ice sheet breaks up--causing an accelerated diffusion of methane gas, which would explain the dry ice. But that's not an easy call, because it doesn't explain why the tree itself--you know, the bare tree--is white and dangling with school desks. This Run of the Mill Theater production of Samuel Beckett's workhorse is obviously trying to send a message. Would Beckett have approved?

Beckett would have probably fired off a disclaimer, but then, as Beckett would probably agree, he's dead. So we should accept the opening scenery at face value. The opening of this Godot leaves you scratching your head over the scenery while Estragon (Praem Phulwani) is busy trying to pull off his boot. Meanwhile, the theater is clogging up with scented fog, which gives the place the ambiance of a posh gift shop.

Maybe I've got it wrong, but I thought the idea of Beckett's theater was that you start off with nothing, build up from there, and end up with nothing. So the building is everything: whether it's half-assed stories, relationships, or contingent realities.

This Godot may be more of a deconstruction. It starts with the assumption that we have a classic on our hands. The two characters, Estragon and Vladimir (D. Grant Cloyd), find themselves moving warily into Beckett's textual minefield. They treat it like a museum, speaking the English as if it's translated from the French, which it is, and slowly but surely getting more comfortable in the second act.

As is true in many museums, Estragon and Vladimir are eager to move from one room to the next. That gives the first act an undercurrent of restless agitation. Take the carrot scene, where, after checking out the turnips in Vladimir's coat, Estragon goes for the carrot. The carrot is a character. For a moment, it represents everything Estragon needs in life. But in this version, the carrot is a familiar prop, which, over a half-century, has taken on the weight of, say, Poor Yorick's skull. When Estragon dangles it in front of the audience, he forgets it's there. As he crams it into his mouth, he forgets about it completely.

That quick-draw impatience leaves the first act fragmented, with the two characters wandering in separate directions, without developing a relationship. In the second half--where the acting is more convincing--they're wondering whether anything happened in the first half.

What's missing, and it may be significant, is the notion that in the absence of Godot--and, at least, for Beckett--what's on the stage is everything. It's what leads Vladimir and Estragon to believe, even when they have no reason to do so, that more is on its way. In 2008, at least in this production, the intensity of that drive to pass the time has moved into the background.

There are, however, some memorable moments. First, the entrance of Lucky (J-F Bibeau) and, holding the leash, Pozzo (J.G. Heck). Lucky has become a motif in his own right, but in this version, Lucky puts his thinking cap on and starts to cogitate. The action stops, and what follows is Bibeau's beautifully rendered and choreographed performance of Lucky's famous monologue. Heck, meanwhile, delivers a performance as Lucky's tormenter/agent that, while uneven, has an appealingly off-handed cruelty. As the somewhat oversized Boy, Ben Brunnschweiler gives the ending of Godot a haunting, if somewhat bizarre, intonation. And in the second half, Phulwani and Cloyd truly find their rhythm.

Yes, Waiting for Godot is, officially, a classic. It has famous scenes, it's loaded with interpretation, and there are speeches that everyone waits for. Any altering of the minimalist stage directions is somehow a statement, and many of us have seen it with all-star actors. So it's no surprise that, despite the scene changes, this production deals with the warhorse a little too tentatively. It's up to small theaters such as Run of the Mill, however, to remind us that Godot is really about two guys who have nothing to lose.

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