Tickets are $20 adults and $15 students, available at crtpalmcoast.com
When Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” makes its Flagler County debut on Friday April 29 at Palm Coast’s City Repertory Theatre, no doubt the “laugh sensation of two continents” – as the play was once touted – will fare better than its disastrous American debut in Miami in 1956.
After all, the Irish-born Beckett, who lived most of his life in Paris and who wrote in French as well as English, went on to win worldwide acclaim, as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Critics, theater geeks and even everyday theater patrons with a taste for more than “Oklahoma” or Neil Simon have proclaimed “Godot” to be one of the most significant, engaging and provocative plays of the 20th century.
But “the laugh sensation of two continents”?
OK, it was the play’s producer, Michael Myerberg, who in 1956 hyped the unknown “Godot” in advertisements using that tag in the days before the unconventional, absurdist drama premiered at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. Miamians – perhaps spoiled by the wacky shenanigans of comedian Jackie Gleason and his locally produced TV show – were not amused.
“Cabs would pull up at intermission rather than after the show because they got so used to people walking out at intermission” during the play’s run, says Earl Levine, who plays Estragon in the City Rep production.
Beckett’s 1953 play – which is often and rightfully tagged as part of the “Theater of the Absurd” movement – depicts two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who engage in conversation as they wait for a mysterious figure named Godot – but instead a man named Pozzo and his slave Lucky show up.
Detractors (and there have been fewer and fewer of them as the decades have progressed) howl “There’s no plot!” Admirers howl “There’s no plot!”
Detractors who must’ve never watched their Seinfeld snidely note that the play contains its own epitaph when Estragon says: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” Admirers note the play captures 20th-century, post-World War II angst and masterly distills the essence of existential philosophy – and life itself — when Estragon says: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”
When a sheepish, somewhat contrite Myerberg soldiered on after the Miami debacle and prepared to open “Godot” on Broadway, he confessed to New York Times writer and editor Arthur Gelb that he “went too far in my effort to give the play a base for popular acceptance.”
As John P. Harrington notes in his book “The Irish Play on the New York Stage: 1874-1966,” it was Gelb’s verbiage in his Times profile, and not Myerberg’s words, that said the producer was seeking “70,000 bona fide intellectuals in New York” to “support [a] plotless play.” That Broadway run generated somewhat respectable, but not boffo, box office.
At a theater symposium in Boston in January 1957, as reported by Caldwell Titcomb in a Harvard Crimson article headlined “The Enigma of ‘Godot,’ ” Myerberg pleaded that someone must stage “new works that might someday have classic stature, even though there is no chance of aiming at a mass audience.”
For those who have been waiting for “Waiting for Godot,” that someone in Palm Coast is City Repertory Theatre, whose raison d’etre – or at least a sizable chunk of it – is staging plays with various degrees of outre stature: Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” Israel Horovitz’s “Line,” David Ives’s “All in the Timing,” etc., even if the occasional Neil Simon pops up too.
“We have done many plays that aren’t in the common mode,” says director and City Rep co-founder John Sbordone. “To me this is the most difficult play that we’ve done, the most challenging play that we’ve done. You know what’s hard about it? You know the word ‘Bardolatry?’ It’s people who go to Shakespeare just because it’s Shakespeare and however bad the production is – it’s Shakespeare. This will get a certain amount of audience who are ‘Oh, it’s Beckett, it’s important.’ ”
However, Sbordone is confident that area theater patrons – at least those who have supported City Rep throughout its adventurous 11-year history – will not be of the Bardolatry ilk.
“Godot” will appeal to “those who think,” Sbordone says without a whiff of pretension in his voice. “It gets you to talk about all the philosophy you want to talk about, about existentialism.
“You hear about this play all the time. It’s a Jeopardy question. It’s one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It’s a play that ought to be done. I hope there are 300 people in the county and many more beyond who will say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been hearing about that forever. I think I’ll find out what that’s about.’ ”
The City Rep cast – Levine as Estragon, Victoria Page as Vladimir, Brent Jordan as Pozzo and Beau Wade as Lucky – aren’t so sure that “Godot” is all that outre, at least in modern times.
Ask these theater veterans whether Theater of the Absurd even exists today, and they are unequivocal in their affirmative response.
“I watch ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and I think it’s the same kind of dialogue,” Levine says, noting the HBO comedy series created by Larry David, who with Jerry Seinfeld co-created the TV sitcom “Seinfeld.” One of the most Godot-ish episodes of “Seinfeld” revolved around the meta idea that the characters Jerry and George were creating a TV show “about nothing.”
“Theater of the Absurd definitely exists today,” Wade says. “Furthermore, pop culture, especially younger pop culture, is very much rooted in absurdity.”
Wade, Jordon and Levine cite such modern TV sketch comedy and cartoons as “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” “Ren and Stimpy,” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and just about anything on Adult Swim.
“It’s just the interactions that give these shows their charm or meaning,” Wade says. “There are some shows where the plot of what’s happening isn’t as important as the relationships explored.”
Page recalls the time she auditioned for Edward Albee, one of America’s greatest playwrights, in New York City: “He said, ‘Why do people do Theater of the Absurd? I hate Theater of the Absurd. Why don’t we ever see Shakespeare?’ ”
This tongue in cheek comment, mind you, came from the Tony and multiple Pulitzer winner who wrote “The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?,” about a marriage that disintegrates when the husband falls in love with a goat.
(Absurdity of a different sort was the reason Page says she didn’t land the part: “He hired a girl with big tits for my part and I was told later that’s why I didn’t get it. He liked big tits.”)
“The influence (of Theater of the Absurd), the way in which it influenced thinking and writing over the next 50 years (after its heyday) was extraordinary,” Sbordone says. “I saw some of Bob Fosse’s work in the 1970s and it was all new and bright, and now it’s commonplace. It gets assimilated.
“I think the word ‘existential’ is so overused from the Trump era, as being an ‘existential threat,’ that we’ve lost that sense of loss that Beckett and Enesco and Genet and all of those people had coming out of World War II, coming out of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust and the whole sense of meaninglessness in life. What happened to the moral code? And that permeated everything in the next half-century. So yes, it’s extraordinarily influential.”
The wait for “Waiting for Godot” is over for area theater-goers. Wade notes a buzz has been brewing on the Facebook pages of Orlando area theaters: “People are saying ‘I haven’t seen this staged anywhere in the past century – I’m going to be there.’ ”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
City Repertory Theatre will stage “Waiting for Godot” at 7:30 p.m. April 29-30 and May 6-7, and at 3 p.m. May 1 and 8. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets are $20 adults and $15 students, available at crtpalmcoast.com, by calling 386-585-9415, or at the venue just before showtime.
A “Waiting for Godot” Sampler:
ESTRAGON: Charming spot. (He turns, advances to front, halts facing auditorium.) Inspiring
prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let’s go.
VLADIMIR: We can’t.
ESTRAGON: Why not?
VLADIMIR: We’re waiting for Godot.
ESTRAGON: (despairingly). Ah! (Pause.) You’re sure it was here?
ESTRAGON: That we were to wait.
VLADIMIR: He said by the tree. (They look at the tree.) Do you see any others?
ESTRAGON: What is it?
VLADIMIR: I don’t know. A willow.
ESTRAGON: Where are the leaves?
VLADIMIR: It must be dead.
ESTRAGON: No more weeping.
VLADIMIR: Or perhaps it’s not the season.
ESTRAGON: Looks to me more like a bush.
VLADIMIR: A shrub.
ESTRAGON: A bush.
VLADIMIR: A—. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?
ESTRAGON: He should be here.
VLADIMIR: He didn’t say for sure he’d come.
ESTRAGON: And if he doesn’t come?
VLADIMIR: We’ll come back tomorrow.
ESTRAGON: And then the day after tomorrow.
ESTRAGON: And so on