Nashville theater took an artistic turn in the right direction last weekend with the opening of People’s Branch Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Looking for signs of progress in Music City’s theatrical landscape is an off-and-on proposition, but People’s Branch, a professional, Actors Equity enterprise now beginning its third season under the stewardship of founder Brian Niece, promised innovation and quality, and it generally delivered. The company exhibited growth as it mounted one of theater’s most important scripts with high style in every aspect. Niece, a very good actor in his own right, proved fully equipped to handle the directorial chores in certainly one of the most challenging works of the modern stage.
Yet People’s Branch faced harder challenges on Monday, Nov. 18, when it was forced to announce that, due to legal pressures from the Beckett Estate, as explained by Samuel French Inc., the publisher and licensor of the script in the U.S., the company was going to have to cancel the remainder of its run. The reason? Two females were acting in the lead roles, which heretofore have traditionallyand as spelled out in the play’s textbeen portrayed by men. “We have done everything in good faith,” Niece explained on Tuesday. “We had an implied license to proceed and were prepared to pay the royalties to Samuel French. We maintain that we are not in breach of contract.”
Niece contends that the contractual rider in question is imprecise, and that using females in the roles does not change the play’s meaning in the least. Indeed, if there are few plays that can hold up under gender-neutral casting, Godot is probably one of them, since its thrust is highly cerebral, its subject matter philosophical and its context almost fantasy-like.
“We had three options,” Niece continues. “Recast the play with men, an impossibility given our schedule; continue to perform knowing the production was unauthorized, and thus risking heavy fines as well as future trouble with Samuel French; or close the show.” In choosing the last option, People’s Branch will not only have to refund tickets, but it is still contractually obligated to pay the show’s actors and technical staff, a situation that will result in a $10,000 company deficit. “I’m demoralized and feel defeated,” Niece says. “But I feel we’ve maintained our integrity where the play is concerned.” Strangely enough, Niece’s company mounted a production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 2001, featuring well-known local actress Denice Hicks in a role also written for a male.
People’s Branch will hold a roundtable discussion 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Belcourt Theatre, where company members and the Godot creative team will discuss this most unusual turn of events. Admission is free, with donations to the company accepted at the door. For information, call 254-0008.
One has to wonder what Beckett (1906-1989) himself would say about this irony-laced situation, especially since Godota seemingly simple yet amazingly complex and prescient work that asks essential questions about existence itselfis the play that launched the absurdist theater movement. The author completed Godot in 1949, and it was first presented in Paris in January 1953. It’s no surprise that its elliptically conveyed message is of the cynical, post-World War II age in which it was written. It also reflects the background of a thoroughly European (albeit Irish-born), multilingual writer who had participated in the French Resistance movement and also served as an assistant to the great James Joyce when the master was constructing the novel Finnegan’s Wake.
Biographical data report that, as a young man, Beckett was enamored of the comic films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This link to the author’s experience is expressed directly in Godot’s two lead characters, Vladimir (a.k.a. Didi) and Estragon (a.k.a. Gogo), two woebegone and harmless tramps who wait on a nameless country road over the course of two days for the arrival of one M. Godot, who by evening’s end has taken on mythical proportions. Who Godot is will to the end of time be the source of critical discussion encompassing religion, philosophy and psychology. (Various interpretations have suggested the name combines the word God with the name Charlot, the French sobriquet for Chaplin.) And yet, typically Beckettian, it is precisely Godot’s absence on which this strangely evocative drama turns.
Indeed, Didi and Gogo are not unlike the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, two lost souls whose seemingly nonsensical banter and pondering of nothing but the moment itself equates to the crux of human existenceits futility. Beckett’s play conjures the great philosophical thinkers: Martin Heidegger, who stated that humans can never hope to understand why they are on Earth; Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist who averred that human beings are unable to achieve a rational basis for their lives; and Søren Kierkegaard, who gave us the concept of angst, in which freedom of choice results in a state of anxiety, with the individual surrounded by almost infinite possibilities.
Though it can’t be divined with certainty, Beckett’s universal message here suggests that pondering the impossible questions causes pain, dread and inactivity, eventually destroying people from within. But if the text reduces human achievement to nothingness, People’s Branch’s production did so in a way that also celebrated the very fact of being human. All seems bleak here, of that there is no doubt; yet it was the very “being-ness” of Beckett’s characters that local show-goers ultimately took from the theater last week. There is immense humor in this play too, Beckett’s enigmatic and circular dialogue, his captivatingly sardonic wordplay and his well-timed pregnant pauses comprising little apparent substance but saying so much about humanity.
Niece and his fine cast took the high road here. Not only were the players excellent, they benefited from their offbeat casting. Didi and Gogo may have been conceived as male characters, but their simple humanness makes their portrayal by two femalesJenny Littleton and Mary Tanner Bailey, respectivelya smooth one conceptually. Even better, Niece gave these fine actresses a chance to stretch into areas of performance that might be denied them in more conventional gender-based roles. Moving nimbly about the stage like A.A. Milne’s Tigger, Littleton was simply a delight; Tanner was her pensive, more stationary, Eeyore-like equal. Together, they managed to turn logic on its head in the wink of an eye. Their interplay was best captured in a hilarious war of words in which the stakes are raised higher and higher until being called a “critic” becomes the top insult of them all. (Touché!)
The marvelous Matt Chiorini was also on hand in the role of Pozzo, a pompous, loquacious interloper whose musings only ratcheted up the existential debate even higher. He was accompanied by his leashed slave, Lucky, played stellarly by Jonathan Root. Clad clashingly in polka-dots, plaids and suspenders, Root delivered Beckett’s famous, lengthy, essentially punctuation-less Act 1 speechlampooning academic gibberishwith admirable clarity and panache.
Directorially, Niece had a thoughtful grip on the words and action, and save for some slowness as Act 2 wended to its conclusion, his guidance consistently showed. As he did in last season’s The Fever, he set about finding incredibly interesting and appropriately atmospheric musical selections to accompany the action, among them the strains of a calliope and what sounded like a theremin. The music ably served to amplify the play’s cockeyed mood and fill in the blank spaces. In addition, there were two lovely, lyrical musical interludes featuring vocalist Stephanie Niece and harpist Timbre Cierpke.
Enough can’t be said about the work of Obie-, Tony- and Emmy-award-winning designer Franne Lee, whose subtly colorful costumes added the kind of touch so necessary to any theatrical endeavor that considers itself fully professional. Combined with Anne Willingham’s interestingly stark set and Jolane Morgan’s lights, the actors were blessed with the proper arena to create theatrical magic, which they did most of the evening.
“We always do something to prove that we exist,” says Beckett’s Gogo. The beleaguered vagabond is right, of course. And good theater is one of ’em. Too bad members of the Beckett Estate will miss this production. They might’ve liked it in spite of themselves and what would seem to be their rather stodgyand amazingly contradictoryapproach to progressive theater.
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