Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett’s long-lived absurdist tragicomedy “Waiting for Godot” is not abundantly entertaining, nor does it exactly change one’s life with its profound meaning — yet true theater connoisseurs are obligated to like it anyway, lest they be looked down upon by their fellows.

BYU’s student production of it, while generally good, is marred by a few directorial choices that don’t work, and by performances that emphasize style over substance.

The folks who get mad when I spend too much time discussing the plot shouldn’t have a problem with this review, because there is no plot. Vladimir (Javen Ronald Tanner) and Estragon (Ryan Rauzon), two powdery-white hobos, sit and wait for Godot to arrive. He doesn’t. The end.

In the course of their waiting, they discuss a good many things, and also talk about truly nothing — a sort of pre-“Seinfeld,” post-modern, ultra-absurdist exercise in deliberate tedium.

They also meet up with Pozzo (Joshua Brady, also the director) and his slave Lucky (Chad Gooch), who are passing by. Pozzo is a proud, pompous plutocrat; Lucky is a drooling old man with only one line in the entire play (but that line is three minutes long, and everyone tries to get him to shut up after about two).

Tanner looks and acts like a cross between Charlie Chaplin, Oliver Hardy, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. His acting method distracts and is jarring at first, as he flits wildly from one emotion to the next, without ever really registering in any of them. In fact, he seems not to be acting the part so much as worshipping it. Tanner is also the show’s dramaturg, and he wrote the commentary included in the program; he’s obviously a big fan of the play. This works against him, though, as he is so intent on making his performance technically perfect, hoping to live up to what he considers to be brilliant source material, that he forgets to add any humanity or realism to his character.

On the other hand, Rauzon’s Estragon is more comfortable and honest. The laughs in the play come almost entirely in the second act, and almost all of them come from Rauzon. With a look or a tone of voice, he conveys the humor inherent in two men waiting for something that won’t happen.

To make a biblical analogy, Rauzon and Tanner are Mary and Martha. Tanner bustles around the stage, delivering a spotless yet soulless performance, while Rauzon just sits back and enjoys the opportunity to act in such an unusual, challenging play — and as a result achieves more.

Director Brady has added quite a bit of odd physical movement — synchronized one-foot hopping, other choreographed weirdness — some of which gets laughs but most of which seems hollow. Instead of finding a way to get laughs out of the lines themselves, Brady has directed our attention to the shtick, which is never a good idea.

Beckett refused to say what the play is supposed to mean. He was fine with people coming up with their own interpretations, as long as they stayed true to his script and didn’t try to pass off their analyses as being the only correct ones.

Which makes it easy to produce the show, because you don’t have to worry about conveying a theme in harmony with the playwright’s intentions. Convey any theme you want, and you’ve succeeded.

So what’s the theme in this production? Again, the question is impossible to answer. I could tell you what I got out of it — the seeming absurdity of religious devotion and the inherent banality of life — but that may not be what the director intended. And yet, by Beckett’s rules, we’re both right. Everybody wins!

This is a mature, mostly successful production. Theater fans ought to see this play at least once in their lives, if only for the sake of well-roundedness. Some dialogue from the show sums up my take on it:

POZZO: You find it tedious?
ESTRAGON: A little bit.
POZZO: And you, Sir?
VLADIMIR: I’ve been better entertained.

I've said it before, but this was a really hard show to review. I know the four main cast members pretty well, having worked with three of them in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" a few months earlier. Javen Tanner, in particular, I just adore, both as an actor and as a person, and I struggled with how to write the review.

This show was performed on the same stage in the winter of 1993. My pal Marc and I got to watch it for free in exchange for being ushers for an evening. I seem to recall neither of us was too impressed with that production, either. Beckett, shmeckett, that's what I say.