By JOHN DeMERS
Two men meet in nature as the sun edges lower, perhaps on a desolate plain after some kind of nuclear holocaust. They talk, they laugh, they argue – but most of all, they wait. For someone. For something. And when the person or thing they’re waiting for doesn’t show up, they return to the same spot the next afternoon, to wait again. They talk about giving up hope, but then they hope. They talk about leaving, but, in one of history’s most enticing final stage directions, “They do not move.”
And world theater is never the same.
It’s appropriate that Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre is serving up Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as its debut in its new venue, the former home of DiverseWorks, where Catastrophic had staged several shows in the past. Most of the works they’ve produced and/or created over two decades owe a huge debt to Beckett and, more than any other of his works, to Godot. There’s a strong feeling of coming home about the company’s realignment with its single most profound reason for being.
Beckett’s play is part suicide note, part lyric poetry and part vaudeville act, each style of entertainment grabbing our attention in quick succession until we start questioning which is which. What we don’t ever question is that we’re having a wonderful time in the theater, laughing harder and more often than we have in ages. As with most works of art, for the theater or elsewhere, there’s a barely concealed scream of protest at the core of Godot, crying from the heart – to what? to whom? – about the way the human condition simply is, even as we’re all having a ridiculous amount of fun recognizing our plight.
Within five minutes of the play’s opening lines, director Jason Nodler (who founded the company with Tamarie Cooper) makes it clear that he and his stellar cast are worthy of the work at hand. In a correctly stark set design – a barren tree, a rock, an occasionally projected full moon – everything falls on the actors’ navigation of Beckett’s remarkable, unexpected, soul-slaying language. The guy may have lived most of his life in Paris, but he was Irish, after all. In so many ways, what isn’t slapstick physical comedy (something Catastrophic always handles wonderfully) is lots and lots of talking.
Greg Dean and Charlie Scott are amazing as those two men. Anyone who hears about Godot’s subject or style and assumes the result must be dreary needs to watch these guys onstage. The characters known officially as Vladimir and Estragon act and react, grouse and cry out, laugh and kinda-sorta-maybe love, the latter in a way that evokes fellowship among the timeless tramps they most resemble. Their physical comedy is infectious, as though old-fashioned shtick had been called upon to deliver the worst news anybody ever heard.
Though (spoiler alert) the long-awaited Godot never shows his face, a few other people put in appearances on that shadowy stretch of plain – and memorable appearances they are. Company regular Kyle Sturdivant shines, as he always does doing virtually anything with Catastrophic, along with Troy Schulze. They pull off a bizarre, wild and savagely endearing master-slave thing as Pozzo and Lucky, each at times more outlandish than the other. Sturdivant in particular brings an over-the-top musical-theater flair to his scenes as the guy holding the whip.
Is Waiting for Godot depressing? Now that’s a tough question, with one long, crazy, contradictory answer. Like all the Theatre of the Absurd “comedies” it helped define, the play’s notions of human life as cruel, meaningless and brief aren’t exactly the stuff of Little Mary Sunshine. Still, having emerged from World War II with much the same despair that marked the Lost Generation in Paris after World War I, Beckett and his contemporaries mined a remarkable amount of humor from the barren earth they chose to excavate. Waiting for Godot seems written with Catastrophic Theatre in mind.
Company Photo by Anthony Rathbun.