A half-century after the premiere of Waiting for Godot the profound but puzzling plays of Samuel Beckett are at last starting to come into focus. "The world is catching up to Beckett," says James O'Neil of Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, which is producing an ambitious Beckett Festival this month, including a major production of Godot opening Saturday night. "If his work was ever dense or unrecognizable, it no longer is."
That may be something of an overstatement, but the outlines of Beckett's approach now seem clear. In the depressing years immediately following World War II, during which he served in the French resistance, the Irish dramatist began to create scenarios in which all the things we humans use to make sense of our world have been stripped away. That stripping-away process is echoed in director Walter Asmus' approach to Godot, the festival's centerpiece. Asmus, who lives and teaches in Hanover, Germany, was Beckett's assistant director on a famous Berlin production of the play 30 years ago. He has specialized in the playwright's work ever since, creating seven or eight of his own Godots over the decades, including the acclaimed Gate Theatre of Dublin production that toured to UCLA in 2000. O'Neil and Karyl Lynn Burns, the Rubicon's co-artistic directors, saw that staging in Ireland. When they decided to produce the play, they tracked Asmus down and convinced him to once again tackle Beckett's enigmatic tale of two tramps who bide their time while waiting for their rescuer to arrive.
Joe Spano, who is playing Vladimir to Robin Gammell's Estragon, is profoundly grateful they did. This is Spano's first attempt at Beckett, and left to his own devices, "I would have had a tendency to religiously adhere to the stage directions in the printed text," says Spano. "Walter has no reverence for those stage directions. He has done it with Beckett, and Beckett didn't adhere to them, either." Asmus still speaks admiringly of Beckett's 1974 production, calling it very difficult to top. "He worked everything out in such a functional, practical, economical way," says Asmus. But we can't re-create his staging mechanically. You have to adjust it to the actors. Depending on the personalities of the actors, sometimes one character dominates a bit more, sometimes the other."
Godot demands that its actors "bring a certain dryness to it," he says. "This takes courage. Actors, of course, want to express themselves. There's always a tendency to do too much, to demonstrate things to an audience. [In this play] they are pretty much left to be themselves, without imposing acting devices. A British actor, Patrick Magee, once asked Beckett, 'What is my character about?' Beckett replied, 'He's just like you, Pat. Just like you.'" In other words, Asmus is stripping his actors of all their tricks, "and I'm loving him for it," says Spano. "With Walter, the specific challenge is trying to clear out all the overlay of bad habits and indicating and overacting that accrue to one over the course of a career. He's trying to make us as spare and direct as possible. I'm finding that very hard. He said today, 'Don't create any characters, OK?'"
"One of the things Beckett requires of actors is sometimes to simplify," says Burns. "As actors, we want to motivate everything, justify everything. But it's so important to preserve the ambiguity of those words. You have to work in a very different way."
For all the challenges he presents, Beckett is an irresistible draw for actors, as Burns discovered in putting together the festival. Her first thought was that Cliff DeYoung, who is playing Pozzo, could revive the one-man Beckett show he did in Los Angeles two years ago and perform it on off-nights. But then, "The other people we consider core actors with the company got excited and proposed ideas," she says. As a result, for the last two weeks of the Godot run (starting Sept. 18), the theatre will be active day and night, with supplemental productions of shorter Beckett plays, lectures, and panel discussions. The other Beckett works to be staged include Happy Days, directed by Jenny Sullivan and starring Robin Pearson Rose; Krapp's Last Tape, performed by Rick Cluchey of the legendary San Quentin Drama Workshop; and a double bill of Rockabye, with David Payne directing Susan Clark, and Footfalls, with Asmus directing Linda Purl.
Asmus directed the film of Footfalls, which was part of the Beckett on cinema series now available on DVD. Most of those films will be screened during the festival at the Ventura Century Theatre, a few blocks from the Rubicon. Also on the schedule: a series of "Brown Bag Beckett" lunchtime discussions and a performance by Paris-based actor Conor Lovett of his own adaptation of Beckett's trilogy of novels.
Asmus staged Godot in Paris some years ago, with film director Roman Polanski playing Lucky, and Asmus has a story about rehearsals that illustrates his approach to the material. "Beckett had worked out a definite way for Lucky to carry his bags," Asmus says. "I tried to explain this to Polanski, but [he insisted on figuring out the best way for himself]. Three days before opening, he said, 'Walter, I've been thinking about it. I think I'll carry the bags like this.' He showed it to me, and it was exactly the way Beckett had worked it out. It's natural for an actor to say, 'No, let me figure it out,'" Asmus adds, with a smile. "As long as we arrive at a result that matches the pattern of the production, it's OK."
"Waiting for Godot," presented by and at the Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed. 7 p.m., Thu.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Sept. 4-Oct. 3. $15-45. (805) 667-2900.