Samuel Beckett has become more useful as an allusion, an adjective to qualify the heirs and pretenders of his perverse comic legacy. Rarely is the novelist-playwright spoken of as a living voice. Perhaps being widely regarded as one of the most influential theatrical sensibilities of the 20th century comes with a price. Everybody assumes they know Beckett, even if the generations who've written doctoral theses about the historical context of every sneeze and stammer contained in his text have never met him face-to-face across the footlights of a stage.
If you take a break from the academic circle jerk and catch Kitchen Dog Theater's exemplary staging of Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot, you realize Beckett is everything everyone has written about him...and a whole lot less. This characterization is intended as high praise for a man who spent an adult lifetime--at least two decades of which were in poverty and literary neglect--paring away the pretensions and rationalizations of maturity to reduce human life to its infantile essentials. This is something that theater as an art form does almost by definition, strapping characters down with real time and static space constraints and coercing them to tell the unflattering truth.
Beckett was so acutely aware of this, he considered his plays minimalist exercises to be taken as breaks from the arduous task of fiction writing; he longed to translate the simplicity and immediacy of theater to the lusher, more overgrown medium of the novel, always his first love. Kitchen Dog artistic director Dan Day, who directs and co-stars in this company's morosely funny and astringent staging, tailors the clownish shenanigans to evoke fundamental responses from his audience. There's laughter first, then sympathy, and finally, a gathering horror when the spectator realizes that the protracted and pointless waiting game his two derelicts are engaged in feels a lot like life, if one were to push aside the mundane distractions of career, jury duty, automobile inspection, bills, and so forth.
The inspiration for Waiting for Godot has been traced to everything from Beckett's early '40s work in the French Resistance (war, as he and other famous observers have noted, is as debilitating for its long stretches of boredom as for its brutal confrontations) to his tiring pursuit of literary recognition while toiling for small journals and reviews. (When Godot finally did arrive with worldwide critical and financial success for its author, it didn't stop Beckett's infamous psychosomatic bouts with severe rashes and exhaustion.) As Kitchen Dog's production slowly trickles over you, tickling at first and then poking, you realize that a fitting source material is as close as the author's (and your) last bout with the blues, especially if it was for reasons you can't pinpoint.
Day in and day out for what will probably be the rest of their lives, Vladimir (Day) and Estragon (Matt Tomlanovich) come to the end of a long journey to a meeting place by a tree where the unseen Mr. Godot has promised to meet them and, inevitably, cancels...with the promise that he will appear tomorrow. The long wait is broken up by word games, invented memories, meager meals of carrots, and offstage breaks to relieve bowel and bladder. "Did that pass the time?" Vladimir, the (relatively) more hopeful and determined of the two, asks pessimist Estragon at different moments. Shrugging, the companion replies, "It would've passed anyway."
Beckett was certainly no stranger to chronic depression, and anyone who's experienced this gray, slow-mo hell on earth can attest that the futility that gives Godot its comic force is also an uncanny invocation of what used to be treated as a spiritual crisis and is now considered a medical condition. Death can provoke fear and anxiety in the living, but life can come to seem monolithically overwhelming to the depressed person, who sees days piling up ahead of them like great concrete slabs without shape or stimulation or mercy. Godot is about the hellacious double bind--fear of mysterious death, terror of pointless life--that can trap anyone willing to admit that earthly accomplishments are often accrued in the process of ignoring that death will, inevitably, negate them all.
Director Day understands that Vladimir and Estragon, backs pressed against each other and sweaty, sooty hands clutched together, are squaring off against the related fears of life and death. Their early attempts to crawl out of this twilight coma, even if there's no reality into which they can successfully crawl beyond the coma itself, are presented to the audience with a certain baby's-first-step pride and enthusiasm. And if their back-to-back combat stance soon grows unbearable for them, as well as for us, it suddenly seems a little more comfortable when compared with the role-playing and self-deception of the patrician tyrant Pozzo (Lyn Mathis) and his wretched manservant Lucky (Bill Lengfelder).
Theirs is a sadomasochistic contract whereby Lucky will humiliate himself with gestures of (literally) back-breaking physical subservience to Pozzo in exchange for the stability that comes to individuals who believe they've found their place (however abject that may be) in the universe. But if monotony plagues Vladimir and Estragon like a grueling case of scabies, unpredictability grinds down Pozzo and Lucky with equal authority. They are struck blind and deaf, but attempt, ridiculously and tragically, to continue their previous master-and-slave routine. Vladimir and Estragon may be mucking around in the same sty of arbitrariness and repetition, but at least they are partners, companions, equals in their unequalness. When one droops, the other proffers a strong shoulder in support. And so, sly dog Beckett offers us the meaning of life in a play about life's frustrating rigmarole of meaninglessness.
For its passionate devotion to the play's ambivalent heart, for its understanding that Beckett's humor is every bit as vital as his pessimism (indeed, probably more so), and for its clean, uncluttered, masterful execution, Kitchen Dog's Waiting for Godot is mandatory theatergoing for everyone, including the non-theatergoer. Even if you plan to stay 50 miles from a stage at all times, you're going to encounter references to this 20th-century staple for the rest of your life, so you might as well take the chance to see it performed with as much energy, eloquence, and professionalism as this Kitchen Dog cast brings to bear.
To laugh heartily and feel unnerved and apprehensive at the same time may be the thinking person's only satisfying reaction to an era in which everything--science, God, art, and certainly government--is subject to vigorous doubt. During his lifetime, Beckett bottled and sold this reaction as a cathartic tonic to weary audiences worldwide. Kitchen Dog snuck his recipe and is currently offering it for a very reasonable fee. Theirs is a tasty, nutritious respite from what ails you.
Waiting for Godot runs through March 7. Call (214) 953-1055.
In 1997, Chicago-based stage director and black-theater impresario Chuck Smith gave an interview in which he discussed the importance of bringing Duane Chandler's 1995 drama The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee, which had won the prestigious Theodore Ward Prize for African-American Writing, to the South. As you can imagine, there hasn't exactly been a mob of productions of Chandler's drama about fallout from the federal government's 40-year syphilis "study" on black males in Macon County, Alabama. Like most of the rest of America, heritage and tradition are big in the South, but only when you're remembering the flattering stuff. Soul Rep Theatre brings a streamlined, intimate production to the Junior Black Academy's cabaret space, the Clarence Muse Theatre.
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Unfortunately, there are problems with both script and staging here. The playwright, who has gone on to write for TV's prestigious cop drama Homicide, penned The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee as his Rutgers Scholar master's thesis. His chatty, lumbering script lacks a disciplined dramatic arc; what he presents instead is a rather hoary "investigative" device in which a young New York journalist comes to Tuskegee in 1971. It's shortly after the shit finally hit the fan with the NAACP and other national black organizations over the revelation that, since the early 1930s, government health officials had watched mostly poor, uneducated black men linger into insanity and death from untreated syphilis. The audience becomes the reporter's eyes and ears as he interviews three survivors who participated without knowing exactly why, and, even after cries of protest in the early '70s, aren't entirely sure what has been done to them.
The injustice of the Tuskegee study is self-evident. Nevertheless, it can become wearisome when long recollections and confessions are stretched out over the course of two and a half hours with little concession to rhythm and structure. Miss Evers' Boys, staged several seasons ago at the Dallas Theater Center, also concerned the Tuskegee study, but was on sturdier dramatic ground because there was a gradual thawing-out of the title character's cold professional heart--she is a nurse assigned to care for the study participants--as the ravages of syphilis and the exploitation by the government become harder to ignore. The reporter in The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee begins the show pissed-off, so there is really nowhere for him to go as the study survivors' tales get more outrageous. The playwright does supply a cheap personal revelation toward the end of the show, but you can spot it approaching from miles away.
Director Khary Patyon does get a lot of mileage from some talented actors, especially the marvelous Wilbur Penn as the dirt farmer who clings proudly to his property and Charles Hillman as a tall-tale-telling friend who shares clinic visits and memories of dead friends. Unfortunately, that jury-rigged reporter-doing-an-investigative-piece format feels even more awkward with Dane Hereford as the journalist. His performance mostly feels tentative and out-of-place, although there's truthfully not much to be done with this character. Preserving the memory of a historical atrocity through art requires shape, contour, and even an artifice that the event didn't possess. Raw outrage is an effective fuel for political action, but can leave a play halting and sputtering before it clears the driveway.
The Trees Don't Bleed in Tuskegee runs through February 28. Call (214) 521-5070.