Gogo and Didi on a road to nowhere

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Philip Kayser (rear) and Zac Pierce-Messick star as Estragon and Vladimir, two buddies in bowlers in an absurd, apocalyptic world.
Philip Kayser (rear) and Zac Pierce-Messick star as Estragon and Vladimir, two buddies in bowlers in an absurd, apocalyptic world.

by Anthony Harrison

“Nothing to be done.”

This declaration begins Samuel Beckett’s seminal masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. If you’re not a fan, you could argue the short statement could serve as a proper plot summary. Even if you are a fan, you could argue the same thing — it’s at least an honest summation, since nothing really happens. For instance, it’s a spoiler alert on the level of “Luke, I am your father” to mention that Godot never shows.

Before this season, Wake Forest University’s theater department had never staged Godot. One can speculate on the reasons why. For one, it’s not necessarily Oklahoma! in its popular appeal.

No matter — it’s one of the most lauded works of the 20th Century.

For the uninitiated, Godot centers largely around two friends, Estragon and Vladimir, or Gogo and Didi for short. Gogo’s a space cadet; Didi is mostly rational. Another pair, Lucky and Pozzo, show up midway through both acts. Mostly-mute Lucky serves as pompous Pozzo’s slave, carrying his baggage at whipcracks. Throughout, Beckett leads the audience through circles of absurdity delivered largely in clipped sentences, like an extended, highbrow “Who’s on First?” routine. There’s little character development, minimal plot movement and, in the end, no moment of epiphany.

And it’s great.

Directed by Wake Forest theater professor Brook Davis, the department premiered its take on Godot on Feb. 6. A healthy mix of students and the public filled the Mainstage Theatre in the Scales Fine Arts Center to about three-quarters capacity.

They were treated to quite a sight as they took their seats.

The set reflected both the minimalism and absurdity of the play itself. The sloped stage appeared whitewashed, covered in one large, blank sheet. A tree, looking like a giant, PVC Twizzler unwinding, stood at stage left.

But the set was also composed of what TS Eliot might have called “a heap of broken images.” Props including a classical female nude statue, golf clubs, a Stratocaster, a chandelier, an electric typewriter, a motorcycle and assorted pieces of furniture, all whitewashed as well, grew into and out of the stage, entering at one side and sprouting from another.

At stage right, between the motorcycle and its back wheel sprouting a little further upstage, Estragon (Philip Kayser) dozed on a chest of drawers, dressed in drab browns spattered with paint — the only bit of color to be seen.

At 7:30 p.m. on the dot, Kayser rose and began struggling to remove his left boot, as listed in the stage directions. His efforts continued for a few minutes before Vladimir (Zac Pierce-Messick) arrived. All the while, peppered laughter from the audience, and for good reason — Kayser convincingly portrayed a familiar, easy motion as a herculean task.

That’s one funny thing about Godot — while nothing technically happens, there’s a lot going on. The actors must flail, fall, limp, jump and stammer. There’s a lot of physical comedy, just like any vaudeville review; you just can’t imagine it while reading Beckett’s script.

As with great comedic duos, Kayser and Pierce-Messick shared fantastic chemistry. Much of the comedy arose from their physical disparity — the lanky Kayser stood at least a head taller than the stocky Pierce-Messick. But their verbal interplay also sparkled, whether overlapping each other at breakneck pace or solemnly verbalizing their plight to one another. The two young talents played their respective roles with such enthusiasm, amity and gravitas that you’d figure they really had been chums for 50 years.

The same could be said for Andrew Hayes and Solomon Jordan, playing Lucky and Pozzo, though without the friendly connection. Jordan portrayed the domineering aristocrat with hilarious bombast, matching Kayser and Pierce-Messick in their embodiment of the role and the physical demands put upon him for comedy’s sake.

But Hayes truly disturbed, constantly shifting on his feet, face sunken and pale. And he delivered Lucky’s one line — actually, a soliloquy lasting two pages — with manic desperation so engrossing that some in the audience applauded at its conclusion.

Each actor deserved the standing ovation he received at the show’s end.

For a play in which nothing happens, that’s a pretty good response.