Hats off to Martha’s Vineyard Regional’s “Godot”

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As theater goers walked into the entryway of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center last weekend, there was a prescient hint that they were about to be involved in something other than an ordinary theater experience.

Audience members were directed to climb right up onto the stage where, behind the curtain, they found themselves in a small theater-in-the-round. The makeshift setup consisted of four seating sections circling a minimalist set of a camouflage-painted floor, a tree crudely constructed from burlap and duct tape, and a representation of a rock or mound, similarly covered in burlap and painted like the floor. This was the setting for the school’s production of the defining work of the Theater of the Absurd — Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

The disorientation caused by being a spectator “behind the scenes” added to the overall surreal effect of a production in which women play men, actors switch in and out of roles, time is distorted, dialogue is intentionally all but pointless and, famously, nothing really happens. Not exactly a winning formula for a successful play. However, last weekend’s show was one of the most delightful and captivating pieces of theater Island audiences have been treated to recently.

Director Kate Murray opened the show with a brief introduction explaining the genesis of this particular production, which she refers to as, “a condensed version and workshop piece.” She explained that, “As we are an educational theater department, our first goal, and most important one I think, is to expose theater students, and the community at large, to a broad range of dramatic materials, genres, and experiences. Each production we take on provides a new set of challenges and adventures. We never know when we begin, where we will end up.”

By adding some stock improvisational forms and clownish physical comedy, and by employing a troupe of mature, engaging, and highly talented student actors, the cast and director managed to give charm and entertainment value to a play that is commonly perceived as non-accessible, obscure, and difficult to interpret.

Two sets of young actors (Ashley Gwynn and Sarah Swift, Chris Pitt and Jake Sudarsky) took on the roles of the two male leads. The female pair opened the show as Vladimir and Estragon respectively. They quickly managed to reveal their characters’ personalities, as well as their relationship to each other. The protagonists — two old friends, bound together not so much by mutual affection as by shared history and dependence, are seen bickering over trivial matters. It’s obvious that Vladimir is the leader of the two, and throughout the play he has to perpetually remind his pal that they must persevere in the interminable task of “waiting for Godot.”

Just as we are beginning to grasp the dynamic of the duo, the pair’s hats are literally passed to the two lead male actors. Seamlessly, the young men pick up the action and, while maintaining the integrity of the characters, manage to add further dimensions to the protagonists. Throughout the production, the actors switch in and out, with the teams sometimes mismatched, providing the audience with multiple interaction combinations. The trick worked really well in breaking up the relentless non-action of the play.

At the point at which the suspense of interminable waiting is about to turn into impatience on the part of the audience, two new, very odd, characters appear. An obnoxious, overbearing brute, Pozzo leads his lackey, Lucky, by a rope harness. These roles were similarly shared by male and female pairs (Bryan MacKenty and Taylor McNeely, Kathryn Antonsson and Julia Cooper). Although, through both of the two acts Vladimir and Estragon, as well as their situation, are essentially unchanged, the characters of Pozzo and Lucky undergo a complete metamorphosis and have reversed their roles when they return in Act II. Pozzo has been blinded and is completely reliant on his former slave.

Notes Mr. MacKenty, “My character is a pompous arrogant lout who has lost everything and is still trying to keep this air of arrogance. It was really difficult because I’ve played larger-than-life characters before, but I’ve never had to do such a monumental character change.” Mr. MacKenty did a marvelous job as the bombastic brute, his physical size adding credibility to his character. Ms. Antonsson faced a huge challenge in taking on a role that is difficult to translate to a woman, but managed admirably.

Lucky, the silent subservient slave who trudges along under the weight of Pozzo’s baggage, suddenly springs to life when his hat is placed on his head. His long running monologue is simply a string of nonsensical verbiage posing as intellectual thought. The tag team technique was particularly effective with this stream-of-consciousness scene. The quick passing and donning of the hat added to the manic nature of the speech, as the pontificating Lucky rambles and paces while building to a frantic crescendo before he drops back into silence. Both actors did wonderfully well with this difficult scene, each adding his or her own nuances.

A minor character simply referred to as “a Boy” was played by four freshman actors who had to make very quick switches. The pass-the-hat device also worked really well with this character, who on two occasions is grilled by Vladimir. These scenes were especially entertaining since only one line was delivered at a time by each of the two boys and two girls. The effect was that of a fast-paced montage delivered without any disruption in the continuity of the exchange.

The scene transitions featured an improvisational game called sneaky statues, in which the actors froze in a series of comical poses when the lights came up. The addition of these freeze frames came about after some actors clowned around in rehearsal. The short tableaux did not fail to produce laughs from the audience, and added another entertaining element to the production.

What helps make “Waiting for Godot” such a compelling and stimulating work is the naturalness of the dialogue, which is mainly delivered in staccato back-and-forth fashion: “Well? What do we do?” “Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.” “Let’s wait and see what he says.” “Who?” “Godot.” “Good idea.”

There are none of the unnaturally wordy, over-explanatory speeches that can make dialogue appear stilted. However, this kind of writing presents its own challenges in developing characters with such terse exchanges and virtually meaningless content. The student actors in this production were able to overcome this difficulty and managed to create memorable characters and provide an entertaining, albeit, enigmatic theater experience.

“I think Samuel Beckett wrote this so that the actors can interpret their characters themselves,” said Ms. Gwynn.

In this regard, Ms. Murray’s experiment succeeded beautifully, as the teen actors were given a chance to expand their skills in putting their own stamp on a character. They certainly proved themselves up to the challenges of this difficult project.

The director comments, “I am so thrilled for them that all this work — over 100 hours of rehearsal time — really paid off and they stuck with it when it was most challenging. It’s an experience I think they will always remember. I know I will always remember it.”

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.