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Terrifying Silence 

One of the criticisms of modern society is that it has lost a communal spiritual dimension. In the theater, this uneasiness has centered on the loss of the religious or ritualistic dimension of our drama. Many attempts have been made over the last hundred years to correct this deficiency. For example, when Eugene O'Neill, in the '20s, put a relentless, slowly increasing drumbeat as the basso continuo of Emperor Jones, he was searching for a ritualistic connection with his audience.

Soon, however, the fundamental approach to creating theater was called into question. With the ersatz primitivism of the Living Theater in the '60s, ritual theater really took off. Audience participation became the war cry. This was usually a kind of missionary work in which a tattered, spiritually advanced elect introduced hapless "alienated" citizens to the counter-culture gospel. Happenings and performance art were spawned partly by this same impulse. Modesty of purpose was never a hallmark of these endeavors. But I suppose the prize for pretentious exaltation must go to the indefatigable Peter Brook, who -- at great expense -- transported his international troupe of young idealists to a desert in Turkey or Saudi Arabia or some such place, where they improvised a daylong ritual drama in a non-language specially invented for the purpose by a commissioned "poet."

Meanwhile, in the early 1950s, in a tiny theater in Paris, an expatriate Irishman took a radically new approach to that tired, old, irritating convention of theater: the script -- and succeeded where the others had failed. The essential problem with the flamboyant group efforts to bring ritual back into theater was that they concentrated on theater itself. They addressed the surface of the problem and therefore, inevitably, they were superficial.

Samuel Beckett, however, was deeply and fundamentally troubled by man's place in the universe. He was preternaturally attuned to a sense of life's essential futility. This anguish is ontological. It has to do with the nature of being. The Greeks, who could not trust their gods, felt it deeply. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, got an early whiff of the modern form of this old anguish when he looked out into the night sky and realized "the silence of infinite space terrifies me."

That same terrifying silence lurks in Waiting for Godot.

The play, of course, is associated with the existentialist ferment in post-war France. But Godot is, in a sense, existentialism via Louis Carroll. The world of Godot is a dark Wonderland for grown-ups.

Much of the humor in the play -- like much of the humor in a W.C. Fields movie -- arises from exasperation. But where Fields makes us laugh at the way we get violently furious over a bit of paper stuck on a golf club, Beckett makes us laugh at the exasperation built into life at its most basic level: the relentlessness of time; the deceptions of memory; the tyranny of language; the repetitiveness of hope and despair; the hollowness of status; and, finally, ultimately, the inescapable void, the great nothing that lies hidden in every instant.

A chance to see this most eccentric, entertaining and distressful of modern masterpieces is always welcome. And one feels the author would approve of the A.R.K. theater, in its raw Marigny Street warehouse, as a suitable nowhereland to house his bleak metaphysical landscape.

Under Michael Williams' direction, the young cast displays a great deal of intelligence and enthusiasm. Kevin Fricke (Vladimir), L.S. Monseu (Estragon) and Tristan Codrescu (Pozzo) are an agile comic threesome with a way of reaching out to the audience and bringing them along. While Corey Vallon is a most dejected and hang-dog Lucky. Wesley Wu uses the theater's rudimentary lighting to excellent effect, adding variety to Daryl Morgan's simple but apt black cordite set.

The main problem with the show is atmospheric -- in the literal sense of the word. The A.R.K. is not air conditioned. Some large fans keep the temperature in the room bearable. Unfortunately, they also drown out large swathes of dialogue. And this is a play where so little happens, that the action really takes place in the words themselves -- as strange as that sounds. There is also a commendable desire to try to make things physically interesting. This is often well done. But it would be even better to remain absolutely faithful to the logic of the text -- to swallow the radical inertia whole, as it were, and not try to help the playwright out with added business.

But if the show has a few flaws, it is also a vibrant and enjoyable evening. And, after all, who can appreciate the endless wait for Godot, better than we in New Orleans, endlessly waiting for the first cool weather.

click to enlarge Kevin Fricke (top, as Vladmir) and L.S. Monseu (as Estragon) tackle the eccentric, entertaining and distressful modern masterpiece Waiting for Godot  at the A.R.K.
  • Kevin Fricke (top, as Vladmir) and L.S. Monseu (as Estragon) tackle the eccentric, entertaining and distressful modern masterpiece Waiting for Godot at the A.R.K.
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