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Breathing new life into Beckett

Players’ Theatre succeeds with updated classic

If Jackson Pollock is the demigod of Modernist visual art, Samuel Beckett is his absurdist playwright cousin. In 1948, Pollock challenged the boundaries of contemporary art by working outside the confines of the canvas with No. 5. That same year, Beckett sat down to write Waiting for Godot, forever changing theatrical practice. The play became the pinnacle theatrical work of the 20th century.

Unlike Pollock’s splashed canvases, theatre can be recreated authentically with each new production. Director Isaac Robinson certainly had this in mind when he constructed a more queer, more Montreal, version of Waiting for Godot at The Players’ Theatre this past weekend. While Robinson’s reinvention of Godot was imaginative, its incorporation into Beckett’s original text made for some alarming clashes between the visual presented, and the dialogue between the characters.

As theatre-goers trickled into the Players’ Theatre, Montreal -based music group Godspeed You! Black Emperor droned lightly in the background. Beckett’s original set, a simple dirt road with a tree, was replaced with a skeezy back alley. Ripped posters for vélo sales were glued on top of graffiti, outside the back entrance to the delivery room of “Godot’s bar.” Considering Godot premiered in 1953, shortly after the end of World War II, many have interpreted Beckett’s near-empty set as a signifier of a post-apocalyptic world. Brilliantly, Robinson reinvented this sense of emptiness through abundant moral bankruptcy, whether in tattered posters or the character’s personalities.

Most notably, the infamous duo Pozzo (Sebastian Biase) and Lucky (Martin Roy), the gluttonous master and sheepish slave, perfectly embodied the dynamic of dominance and submission. The narcissistic Pozzo enjoys a bucket of KFC and a 40 of beer as Lucky, dressed in black denim shorts and bondage leather straps, hungrily rolls his eyes. In what could be called the climax of the play, Lucky delivers his infamous speech, a three-minute tirade of useless, sputtering language. However, here the production beautifully deviates from the text, as Lucky performs the speech in French. If absurdity and disillusionment are the driving forces of Godot, Lucky’s speech succeeded in rattling the audience through miscommunication and shattering them with laughter.

However, the refusal to modernize, or Montrealize, protagonists Vladimir (Rachel Reskin) and Estragon (Martin Law) created more confusion than absurdity. Despite the modern-day aesthetic of the setting, Didi and Gogo’s outfits of bowler caps and patch-worked blazers appear to be from another era. Although they are both presented as men, Reskin wears a skirt. In one scene, where Beckett’s “Boy” (Matthew Steen) exits the bar, dressed as a busboy or bartender, their language is too formal for a back alley exchange. If Robinson went so far as to make Lucky francophone, why not change simple pronouns and phrases too?

The greatest example of discord between the production and Beckett’s text is the tree. The tree, the lone symbol of change or new life in the play, fixes prominently in the text. However, as the set only allowed for signs and graffiti, the tree remained a “Willow Tree” sign, its leaves replaced by a green scarf. Unfortunately, it was reduced to a piece of the background rather than being an entity unto itself.

While these few examples may have overwhelmed the view, the overall production, particularly Robinson’s adaptation of the play, couldn’t be more relevant today. Pollock and Beckett created meaning out of the meaninglessness of their era. Robinson’s choice to present these two characters with nothing to do and nowhere to go seems all too pertinent for students in 2012. We must wait, we must sit patiently, we must try to “pass the time” until the answer arrives – if it ever does. Yet don’t be dismayed, as Pozzo says, “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors.”