Dave Hanson’s comic confection, Waiting for Waiting for Godot, is generating plenty of giggles in the back room theater at Club Café.
Waiting for Waiting for Godot by Dave Hanson. Directed by Paula Plum. Set and Prop Design by Megan Kinneen. Lighting Design by Mike Wonson. Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl. Sound Design by Kyle Lampe. Staged by the Hub Theatre Company of Boston at Club Café, Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA, through July 29.
By David Greenham
You don’t have to know all that much about the works of Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot in particular, or the ins and outs of the theater to find something to smile at in Dave Hanson’s comic confection Waiting for Waiting for Godot, which is generating plenty of giggles in the back room theater at Club Café.
Playwright, screenwriter, and actor Hanson knows the vicious cycle of “the business” all too well, and he happily mucks about with the antic angst of life amid the footlights. If Beckett’s iconic classic Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece of existential angst, Hanson’s Waiting for Waiting for Godot is a tribute to “actor-essential” agony.
The story is straightforward: Ester (whose name is inspired by Godot’s Estragon) is a seasoned actor, anxious to share all of his self-important wisdom. Val (whose Godot namesake is Vladimir) is the younger upstart. He is hungry to learn, filled with the optimism that makes gaggles of newly minted BFA drama students head each June to cities across the country to follow their dream. At least Ester and Val have cleared the first hurtle in the steeplechase life of professional actors. They’re employed — as understudies in a production of Waiting for Godot. The two would-be actors find themselves killing time in some kind of green room/storage closet, filled with various costume pieces, discarded props, boxes, bags, and nicknacks. From their point of view, Godot is the no-show director. One day it’s possible that he or she (they’re not sure) will come through the door and tell one of them to get up on stage and play the role in front of an audience. Will their Godot come? It’s not very likely.
The energy tossed off by Robert Orzalli’s Ester contradicts the entropy of Beckett’s universe. He’s constantly moving, always scheming. Dressed (curiously) in a grey union suit, he kicks off the inaction with a comic bit. He is trying to stretch a (much too small) vest over his pot belly. He keeps up the hapless attempt — around 20 times he groans with effort to make the vest fit. Next to him, a touch more grounded and focused, stands Gabriel Graetz’s Val. He’s dressed in a costume for the play upstairs: a French sailor’s shirt with horizontal stripes and loose suspendered pants. As Ester battles to get into his vest, Val moans as he attempts to open sugar packets for his coffee. The opening gag sums up the trivial purgatory Ester and Val share. Most likely the understudies will never tread the boards in the theater — their performance is limited to the ways they can waste time in their closeted paralysis.
Hanson’s snappy script manages to make the stasis amusing, coming up with some pretty funny gags and lines, especially if you’re a theater fan. In addition to references to Godot, you’ll also find some allusions to Shakespeare (via “Great Classical Monologues for Men”), along with bows to Streetcar Named Desire, Gone with the Wind, All About Eve, and probably a few others that zip by along the way. A particular highlight is Graetz’s bubbly production number; he comes off as a sort of stubby Ethel Merman singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Also diverting are the moments when Ozalli’s Ester teaches his protégé about various acting methods. The Miserly Technique is about giving your scene partner as little to work with as possible. The two stand toe to toe, repeating the same line over and over again. Inspired silliness. I wish there was also a concrete example of the Mamet (pronounced here, with tarnished grandeur, as “Ma’am-aay”) Technique. Mamet’s obscenity laced writing, especially in Glengarry Glen Ross, follows its own perfect rhythm. Ester just explains that it’s the art of swearing on stage — demonstration please!
Director Paula Plum keeps the inertness moving, coming up with farcical bits inspired by the set, costume pieces, and props at hand. There are also transitional moments that pay tribute to legendary comedy pairs in theater and film. Ester and Val’s resonances with Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello are the source for quick homages to their sometimes thin routines. Graetz often seems more comfortable with physical comedy than Orzalli. The two are especially good when they are committed to a common goal, such as when assistant stage manager Laura (Lauren Elias) enters at intermission looking for Estrogen’s vest. It seems the actor playing the role upstairs picked up the wrong vest – the one he’s got is too big. Alas, by that time the two journeyman actors are too confused to make the reasonable connection that Ester’s vest is the one she’s looking for.
Megan Kinneen’s cluttered set and visually engaging props is filled with toys for the director and performers to play with. Mike Wonson’s lights emit the kind of fluorescent glare that make people lose their minds: the theatrical pop of a spotlight now and again provides a welcome respite. Chelsea Kerl’s costumes are fine, though watching the frenetic Orzalli sweat — for 90 minutes — through a grey union suit becomes tiresome. Kyle Lampe’s design juggles two levels of sound effectively. (There’s an on-again, off-again reminder, via muffled sounds from a ghost mic, that a production is going on upstairs.) At times, the inaction of the play is underscored with a quirky and cartoonish soundtrack. Club Café also contributes to the sound design. Now and again the crowd noise from the restaurant out front bleeds through, but the racket contributes to the situation’s absurdity.
Ester and Vlad may never get the opportunity to tread the boards upstairs, but they can’t bring themselves to walk away. Who knows when stardom will call? At one point, Ester reminds his partner that “the show must go on.” “But do you think we will?” Val wonders. Eventually, he asks the age old question of those who cool their heels, “What kind of people would sit around and wait for someone who doesn’t come?” Whether you’re a Godot fan, a Christian, or just someone who wonders if an honest national leader will ever come along, it’s a question with a very embarrassing answer.
Hanson’s clever play is being produced all over the place these days, and the Hub’s rough-around-the-edges production suggests why – it drums up plenty of fun. Given that this is Boston’s pay-what-you-can theater — and there’s a bar on the premises – it makes sense to ditch the rut you’re in and give it a try.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.