The Santa Paula Theater Center's current production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" asks a lot of the audience. And for the right audience, the production delivers a lot in return.
Beckett, an Irish author, wrote "Godot" in French while living in Paris in the late '50s, and subsequently translated it into English. To many theatergoers over the years, Beckett might as well have written the play in Urdu and then translated it to Tagalog--not for nothing is "Godot" considered a high mark in what's called the Theater of the Absurd.
The plot is simple: Two shabbily dressed men stand on a plain in front of a single emaciated tree and wait for someone known as Godot. They've been waiting for him for several days (going home at night) and there's no guarantee when Godot will show up, if at all.
To pass the time, Vladimir and Estragon discuss philosophy, contemplate joint suicide and meet with an assortment of odd characters.
"Godot" played more than 50 performances during its first Broadway run, and is always being produced somewhere--more often by arty college theater departments than by community-oriented groups such as the Santa Paula company, which is also producing "You Can't Take it With You" as part of the current subscription season.
The Santa Paulans should be commended for their high-mindedness, and "Godot" does appeal on a couple of levels. First, the dense dialogue lends itself to endless hours of post-show discussion, which is always fun for the cultural elite. Second, and perhaps more important, the play is a wonderful opportunity for actors to do something different; four of the five roles are real showpieces.
And, under the assured direction of Deborah Lavine, the Santa Paula principal players are most impressive. The parts are richly comic, with "Godot" forming a sort of bridge between vaudeville comedy and Monty Python's Flying Circus. (E. G. Marshall and baggy-pants comic Bert Lahr starred in the original Broadway production, and several comics have followed suit. Steve Martin and Robin Williams starred in a Lincoln Center production a couple of years ago.)
Dana Elcar and H. Carl Nelson draw from sweet but simple-minded Stan Laurel and pompous Oliver Hardy in this version, with Elcar adding a bit of W. C. Fields to his interpretation of Vladimir.
No less impressive are Gary Best as the clownish Pozzo (a satirical jab at the upper class?) and Tom Hall as his silent but evidently willing slave, Lucky. It's Hall who drew the biggest ovation during the opening night performance last week, though Elcar, Nelson and Hall also turn in bravura performances. A boy appears briefly, played by either Chris Mueller or Matt Plomell.
A special note of commendation to Marianne Elcar, whose costume design adds considerably to the production.
While certainly not for everybody, "Waiting for Godot" is an important part of theater history, and the Santa Paula production is an honorable and effective one.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Waiting for Godot" continues through Aug. 9 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 127 S. 7th St. in Santa Paula. Performances are Thursday through Saturday nights at 8 and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., with no show on July 4 or 11. Tickets are $12.50; $11 for seniors and students. For reservations or further information, call 525-4645.