Nailing Samuel Beckett’s self-styled “tragicomedy,” the great “Waiting for Godot,” demands tapping into the droll give-and-take of the great comedy teams, as well as access to a well of sorrow from which an audience can draw the universal out of the particular. In Andrew Traister’s handsome but unmoving production at Glendale’s A Noise Within, one actor triumphantly inhabits the style throughout, while the others are left to flounder in the wilderness like the endlessly expectant Estragon and Vladimir themselves.
The first image of Joel Swetow’s Estragon, mouth pulled back in a rictus of agony as he tries to pull off his boot, confirms excruciating pain, although the script just specifies “exhausted” (one messes with Beckett at one’s peril, and this production takes multiple liberties with dialogue and stage directions). Pain proves to be Swetow’s one note throughout, a catch in his throat in almost every line, neck veins bulging and voice exuding whiny self-pity. Swetow’s strained take on the simpler and more decent of the two tramps, the one who must maintain hope, robs the production of much pathos.
Production is no luckier in its Lucky (Mark Bramhall) and Pozzo (Mitchell Edmonds), representatives of the power dynamic in the unseen outside world. Edmonds possesses the girth and orotundity of a Sydney Greenstreet — good choice, that — but none of the malevolence, subtle or overt, that would explain his iron hold over his servant. A Pozzo without menace is just a big man taking up space.
Show’s lowest ebb comes with the woebegone Lucky’s “thinking aria,” a logorrheic collage of unpunctuated imagery on the order of “Finnegans Wake” that ought to, and normally does, hilariously evoke the futility of intellectualism in a shattered universe. Traister’s disastrous decision to have Bramhall punctuate and make sense of the speech renders the sequence excruciatingly boring, as we try in vain to follow it. (It’s also baffling: Why don’t his listeners stop him? Because script says to let him continue, that’s why.) Beckett’s carefully plotted reactions by Lucky’s audience go by the boards.
But then there’s Vladimir. Robertson Dean is not a portly fellow, but as he staggers and waddles around Michael C. Smith’s painterly evocation of a desolate plain, he takes on the aesthetic weight of Oliver Hardy, maintaining his dignity (and his partner’s spirits) while fighting off despair. He commands a wide pitch range and deadpan comic technique, and this utterly relaxed yet emotionally committed performance creates the production’s most striking images, as Dean looks out over our heads and in his face — beatifically lit by James P. Taylor — we read the world’s emptiness.
Vladimirs and Estragons generally rise or fall together, but not in Glendale, and it’s as if two acting traditions were butting heads, the naturalistic and the epic. As we watch Dean, we see the sorrow of a thousand years, but in Swetow we see the pain of the moment. Swetow falls apart to show us his heart is breaking, while Dean remains composed and breaks our hearts instead.