Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has been debated since it was first staged in Paris in 1953. It can be seen as a comedy; there is certainly more than enough humor in the script and in how it can be directed. It can be seen as a tragedy, ranging anywhere from the sad tale of two tramps to the futility of the human condition. Beckett himself has refused to offer any clarification on the meanings behind his play; therefore, it is left to each audience member to determine what type of play it is and what, if anything, its message is.
The plot itself is simple to the point of banality. In the first act, two men in shabby clothes, Vladimir (Anthony Marble) and Estragon (Derek Wilson), are in a void space containing some rocks and a scraggly tree. They have been told that Godot will meet them there. While they await his arrival, they encounter two other men, Pozzo (Gregory Derelian) and his servant Lucky (Michael Stewart Allen).
The second act takes place the next day in the same place.
Director Bonnie J. Monte, in her director’s notes in the program, suggests that the audience not try to make sense of the play as it is being presented. They should allow the play to wash over them, concentrating on the experience and saving the search for its meaning for afterwards.
This approach was last suggested in last season’s Shakespeare Theatre of NJ production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, and it is a good suggestion. A play like Waiting for Godot must be seen and experienced first before any attempt at plot analysis is even attempted; trying to do otherwise will lead to frustration.
Director Monte guides her cast along the tightrope between humor and tragedy in the play, and the very talented actors rise to the challenge. Some of Marble and Wilson’s dialogues are vaudevillian in their wordplay; others are heartbreakingly touching. Derelian’s Pozzo is a smooth-talking spouter of unexamined “conventional wisdom”. Allen’s Lucky is a mute master of physical humor, but when commanded to think he spouts a high speed stream of disjointed thoughts, intellect run amok, with a series of dizzying twists and turns from subject to subject until forcibly stopped.
Director Monte also does double and triple duty as the designer of the set — a perfect representation of nowhere in particular, moving from sunset into night thanks to the lighting design of Steven Rosen — and the designer of the costumes — each fitted to show the essences of the play’s characters.
By taking on the scenic and costume designers’ chores, combined with her directorial tasks, she is better able to conceive and create her vision for the play.
Waiting for Godot is not for everyone. It is a tragi-comedy that demands attention, and it creates a profusion of images and thoughts that will last long after the performance ends. This is truly a classic of Western theatre. Its openness to interpretation ranks with the works of Shakespeare. I cannot more strongly encourage you to see this production.
Waiting for Godot is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through Oct. 1, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit shakespearenj.org. Certain performances require the wearing of masks.