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They do not move – ‘Waiting for Godot’

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Lucky (Tyler Costigan) holds forth as Vladimir (Jim Bulteel), Pozzo (Tellis Coolong) and Estragon (Christopher Luthin) look on in Stillwater Stage’s production of “Waiting for Godot." Lucky (Tyler Costigan) holds forth as Vladimir (Jim Bulteel), Pozzo (Tellis Coolong) and Estragon (Christopher Luthin) look on in Stillwater Stage’s production of “Waiting for Godot." (photo courtesy of Stillwater Stage/Sandy Cyrus)

Orono group produces Samuel Beckett’s classic play

ORONO – One of the great works of 20th century theater is waiting for you in Orono.

Stillwater Stage is presenting their production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at Orono High School. The show runs from Jan. 26 – 29, with performances at 7 p.m. on all days except Sunday (2 p.m.). Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students, with all proceeds going to benefit the Orono High School Auditorium Fund.

“Waiting for Godot” has been a theatrical sensation ever since it premiered in the 1950s. Beckett – an Irish ex-pat living in France – composed “En attendant Godot” in the late 1940s. That initial French version premiered in Paris in 1953, with the English translation (also by Beckett) making its debut in London in 1955.

The tragicomedy is considered by many to be among the most significant works of dramatic literature ever written. Its complexity, depth and thematic fluidity – not to mention its willingness to subvert and outright flout theatrical conventions - led to it serving as one of the progenitors of the movement known as Theatre of the Absurd.

Any synopsis of “Waiting for Godot” is essentially pointless – fitting for a piece that so utterly embraces the notion of meaninglessness. In stark terms, it’s the story of two men – Vladimir (Jim Bulteel) and Estragon (Christopher Luthin) – astride a bleak, empty landscape with only a seemingly-dead tree to break up the monotonous void. With only each other for company, they wait and wait for a mysterious figure (the titular Godot) to appear. They attempt to pass the seemingly endless time, only to continually fall into recursive loops that do nothing but return them to their beginnings once again.

Even the occasional appearance of outsiders – the brazen landlord Pozzo (Tellis Coolong) and the broken slave Lucky (Tyler Costigan) – is not enough to break the pair out of their repetitive lockstep. Whether they’re bemoaning their fates, engaging in vaudevillian slapstick or simply silently gazing into their perceived futures, the reality is that neither Vladimir nor Estragon is capable of breaking the pattern. As miserable and confused as they might be, they still prefer the scattered scraps of the known to the fearful nebulousness of the unknown.

See what I mean? Talking about what this play is about has little to do with plot or narrative. “Waiting for Godot” is about emptiness and nothingness. It is about uncertainty and insular reality. It is about the questioning of purpose and the discovery that what answers we find are often inscrutable. Scholars far more gifted than I have devoted lifetimes to mining the meaning of this masterpiece – part of its brilliance is in its mirror-to-life nature, allowing the audience to see their own truths within it.

As you might imagine, bringing this play to life isn’t easy. There are a multitude of challenges that a script like this one presents; the director – in this case, Sandy Cyrus – has a lot to unpack. Bringing forth the necessary energy to power a show like this, a show whose driving force – waiting – is passive by definition. Creating those moments of connection, the bright lights in the midst of the bleakness – that’s the key to unlocking the true power of “Waiting for Godot.” And while there are some flaws in this particular production, the successes far outweigh the misfires.

The ensemble assembled by Cyrus to tackle this complex piece largely proves up to the task. It seems paradoxical, but the key is to drive the action via the play’s inherent passivity. Bulteel and Luthin demonstrate an adeptness at capturing the cadences of Beckett’s words while still embracing their subtle, ever-shifting nuances. Bulteel is staid and almost priggish as the uptight, thoughtful Vladimir; Luthin is broad and booming as the far-less-stoic Estragon. The two ride the tonal wave throughout, balancing the moments of philosophical intimacy with interludes of verbal jousting and slapstick physicality. Even the odd instance of thematic muddiness works thanks to the Didi-Gogo dynamic that Bulteel and Luthin have created.

Coolong is all smug, self-involved bluster as the coarse and unthinkingly cruel Pozzo. This is the sort of character that can come off as one-note and cartoonish (in a bad way); in Coolong’s hands, he is layered and cartoonish (in a good way). Pozzo’s verbose pomposity is counterpointed by the desperate physicality of Costigan’s Lucky; for much of his time on stage, the actor’s body serves as his voice. The extremity of his movement belies the more subtly effective moments, while Costigan also manages to do justice to Lucky’s sole speech, capturing the painful spirit of that rambling and chaotic stream-of-consciousness outpouring. Owen Beane and Kyle McClellan share the role of Godot’s messenger boy (Beane appears on Thursday and Saturday, McClellan on Friday and Sunday).

There’s a power to “Waiting for Godot” that remains undiminished by age. In truth, it might be as relevant today as it ever has been. Kudos to Stillwater Stage for taking on a challenge such as this one. It’s not an easy play – to produce or to watch – but it is an important one, a piece that is well worth the challenge.

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