With its themes of loneliness, reality, death, the meaning (and absurdity) of life, and the search for self, playwright Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot is considered, by some, to be the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century. Frankly, though, I didn’t search for meaning in the script during Thursday night’s Godot performance at the Harrison Hilltop Theatre, as I was too busy being entertained, to the point of loud laughter, by the captivating oddity of the dialogue and performances.
Directed, here, by Jeff Kingsbury, Waiting for Godot features two vagabonds, Vladimir (David Turley) and Estragon (Matt Mercer). They are waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. They bide their time fussing with boots and hats and finding some entertainment in the antics of traveling actor Pozzo (Bryan Woods) and his elderly servant Lucky (Paul Workman), who arrive on a daily basis, but cannot recall having even met the vagabonds the day before. And while Vladimir and Estragon ponder what it is to be human while observing Pozzo’s self-importance (and his habit of leading Lucky on a leash), Godot himself never arrives, leaving Vladimir and Estragon to wait, day after day, for a man they’ve never met.
Mercer brings a buffoonish charm to his role through the use of big gestures, funny facial contortions, and delightfully unusual sounds that are similar to sighs and growls. Turley makes great, amusing use of his eyes, rolling them here and squinting them there, to portray frustration with other characters. Workman, mostly mute during his time on stage (other than in one really long, wordy monologue), also delivers much of his performance through his eyes, using them to clearly show fear, sadness, anxiety, and eagerness to please, much like a dog. (Also like a dog, Workman’s Lucky pants a lot and drools.) Chad Ackerman portrays The Boy with a believable apprehension, using slow speech and movements to flesh out the simple-minded messenger of Godot.
My favorite of the cast, however, is Woods, who seems more well-suited to Pozzo than to any other role I’ve seen him in on stage. It’s as if he were born to play the character. My companion for the evening said Waiting for Godot came to life when Woods entered, and I agreed; the play wasn’t lifeless prior to Woods’ entrance, but his grandiose affectations added quite a bit of punch to it. With an air of superiority dripping from every line he spoke, Woods had me in stitches with his intentionally pretentious performance, enhanced by clear enunciation and slightly effeminate inflection and gestures. He was utterly delightful, especially when he made the simple act of sitting a grand affair each and every time he sat.
Also serving as set designer, Kingsbury transforms the Harrison Hilltop’s space with floor-to-ceiling white curtains for Godot – two narrower ones creating wings on the sides of the stage, and a wider curtain covering its back. They give the theatre the look and feel of a theatre, and also give lighting designer Tristan Tapscott the opportunity to hide lights behind the wings, where they splash swaths of illumination across and through the curtains. The expanse of curtains, meanwhile, is embellished by a somewhat abstract tree, creatively made with wooden planks and sticks; an interchangeable, hanging moon and sun; a rock (at least I think it was a rock) made of an overturned, oblong, metal container; and a painted path on the floor. Overall, the set is quite simple, but it makes a magnificent impression.
As does Harrison Hilltop’s Waiting for Godot. I was so delighted by the production that my only disappointment was that so few people were in the audience with me. Hopefully, though, the rest of the show’s run finds more people in the theatre’s seats, which, I think, this highly creative effort deserves.
For tickets and information, call (563) 449-6371 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.