Not aht

2nd Story’s Godot is free of pretentiousness
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 30, 2006

DELICIOUS IRONY: Oakes [top] and Perrotti.

What a pity that Samuel Beckett’s plays aren’t more widely appreciated. When I asked a friend who’d just Harleyed in from the left coast if he’d like to catch Waiting for Godot, he said, “Ahhh, saw that once. Took two weeks.” Now Steve is a smart and adventurous guy — an ex-Marine and a La Jolla theater season subscriber — but pretentiousness gives him hives.

Which is all to say that the production of Godot at 2nd Story Theatre (through June 18) might be able to win over theater-appreciators who cast a wary eye at avant-garde solipsism trying to sneak in under the cover of art.

Ed Shea, 2nd Story’s artistic director, is a safe one to trust with such matters. My most vivid memory of him is in front of Trinity Rep 13 years ago. He’d just quit after turning down a role in another Weltschmertz exercise of Anne Bogart’s iceberg-plagued season. Shea, after having portrayed a German lesbian dying of consumption, a pre-pubescent boy, and a Chinese waiter, had just said no thanks to crawling around in a diaper as an autistic boy in The Obscene Bird of Night. “I don’t want to do aht,” he declared.

Well, he’s directing this play on its 50th anniversary this month, so from the above you know that both the staging and the homage is bound to stay real.

Right off we see that this is not going to be a painful experience for us, though it is for the characters. Estragon, known as Gogo (David Rabinow), enters the stark stage removing a boot comically, straining and struggling. He has a reddened nose and pale white makeup that we might not notice at first, but when we do we know that whatever else he and the four others in the play are, they are clowns. Beckett subtitled this a tragicomedy, and productions may choose which syllables of that designation to stress or perhaps ignore. A Godot carrying a brief for existential despair can have Gogo enter, briefly flush with effort, quickly give up, and mutter his “Nothing to be done,” a line later repeated many times, sometimes by his friend Vladimir (known as Didi).

Of course, if this play is presented as a walk in the park there must be frequent stumbles and anxious glances at shadows in the shrubbery. Just as an intelligently done comedy goes for the tragedy (or the reality, if you prefer to put it that way), so too a tragedy as fundamental as the human condition, which this play treats, can go for the comedy, to strike an honest balance.

Rabinow maintains an undercurrent of strained unease with the forgetful Gogo, as Bob Colonna keeps up a façade of knowing confidence as thin as the imaginary smoke from the unlit cigar that Didi waves around. They estimate that they’ve known each other for 50 years, perhaps returning each of those evenings to such a barren landscape to wait for the next excuse that the mysterious Godot sends, along with instructions for them to return tomorrow.

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