Theater scholars have debated for more than 50 years about the merits and meanings of Samuel Beckett's murky masterwork "Waiting for Godot." It may be, like a certain TV sitcom, a play about nothing, yet it certainly was instrumental in earning Beckett the 1969 Nobel Prize in literature.
Whether or not the play is comprehensible, it poses a herculean challenge for actors and directors — a challenge heartily met by UC Irvine's magnificent production in the newly christened Robert Cohen Theater (as of 6:30 p.m. Friday ).
Cohen himself, who arrived at UCI as the campus was being built in 1965, directs this revival, his third staging of "Godot" and fifth association with the play, with meticulous zeal. It is of little concern whether audiences comprehend Beckett's prose (most will not); what really matters is the power and dedication with which its actors attack the material.
Beckett's brooding tragicomedy focuses on a pair of tramps, Estragon and Vladimir (these names are never used; they're known simply as "Gogo" and "Didi") who wait in fear and frustration alongside a country road for the mysterious "Godot," who will provide them with shelter and comfort. They certainly could use both; their lives seemingly have been an exercise in hand-to-mouth survival for about 50 years.
At UCI, these roles are filled to the brim by Chris Klopatek (Gogo) and Ben Jacoby (Didi). Klopatek's manic-depressive Gogo is the more moody and excitable (and, by extension, watchable) of the pair, while Jacoby presents a more pragmatic and powerful figure. Both are superb.
They wait — and wait — for this unknown and unimagined savior, striving to break the monotony by any means possible (including hanging themselves from the tree, if only they had some rope). Their interaction magnifies their hopeless existence, seizing on any form of recreation to overcome the oppressive tedium.
Into their lives come two other characters, the self-aggrandizing landowner Pozzo and his hapless servant, ironically christened "Lucky." These characters are essayed with great have-and-have-not contrast by Sean Harrigan and Peter Frank Antone Leibold IV, respectively.
Harrigan, in his first scene, commands the stage with physical and vocal authority, a despotic force in the life of the luckless Lucky. Leibold glumly endures the continual hardship, mute save for one line – a continuous stream of gibberish running about five minutes which exhausts both him and his audience.
Technically, the UCI show also excels. Robin Darling's wintry setting chills the bone, and the faux proscenium arch, as ragged and battered as the characters, is an inspired touch. Gwyneth Conaway Bennison's costumes are so worn and filthy one may practically smell them in the audience.
Karyn Lawrence's occasionally erupting lighting design and Patricia Cardona's arresting sound plot, with its reverberating echoes at crucial moments, complete the impressive physical accomplishments.
"Waiting for Godot" may be puzzling, frustrating and intellectually challenging, but it's also mesmerizing and captivating at UCI's newly christened Robert Cohen Theater.
TOM TITUS covers the local theater scene for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "Waiting for Godot"
Where: UC Irvine Robert Cohen Theater
Where: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Cost: Contact the box office at (949) 824-2787