Saturday, March 15, 2003

Classic play takes
Japanese twist

Review by John Berger

One of the routine experiments that is conducted from time to time by enterprising students in the University of Hawaii at Manoa Department of Theatre and Dance involves taking a play by a familiar Western playwright (Shakespeare, Brecht, Beckett) and grafting onto it elements of East Asian theatrical traditions.

"Waiting for Godot": Repeats 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. tomorrow at Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawaii. Tickets are $9; $7 for students, seniors, military and UH faculty and staff; and $3 for UH students with valid Spring 2003 ID. Call 956-7655.

The latest such cross-cultural experiment, an Ernst Lab Theatre production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," performed using Japanese-style costumes and performance techniques, is one of the most successful such hybrids in recent memory.

Beckett purists may well cringe at student director Tim Gonzalez-Wiler's impertinence in making changes; others less enamored with Beckett's challenging and existentialist tale are equally likely to find that the highly stylized conventions of kyogen -- a minimalist Japanese comic-theater form -- add a fresh layer of absurdity to the story. To borrow a line from one of the characters: It helps pass the time.

Passing time and fighting off boredom are the crux of the story in this production. Estragon (Chi Ho Law) and Vladimir (Jonathan Egged) have been waiting for at least a day for a man named Godot to meet them. They apparently have been offered employment by Godot, but for reasons never made clear, must wait for him by the side of a country road.

Or did he hire them at all?

Estragon has almost no memory beyond what has just been said to him. Vladimir can remember things but can't be sure whether they actually happened. Both men appear to be mentally deficient.

The two talk about Christ's crucifixion, their friendship, and things that happened between them. They trade insults, then apologize and make up. They also consider committing suicide by hanging themselves from the single tree in the area.

ESTRAGON and Vladimir find fresh diversion when a bombastic traveler, Pozzo (Alvin Chan), and his slave, Lucky (Dezmond Gilla), stop beside the tree.

However, try as they might, it seems that night, or Godot himself, will never come.

"Time has stopped," someone laments during Act I, and a number of those in the audience evidently agreed. At least a quarter of the audience disappeared during intermission.

Admittedly, "Godot" can be tough going, but the cast, director/set designer Gonzalez-Wiler, and costume designer Christine Hauptman, deserved better. Law and Egged seemed perfectly matched as Estragon and Vladimir.

Chan dominates much of the action as the bombastic but vulnerable Pozzo, and displays his comic skill with a winning performance in Act II. Gilla is fine as the enigmatic slave.

All four effectively utilize the stylized vocal delivery and mechanical stage movement expected of kyogen actors in making Gonzalez-Wiler's cross-cultural experiment a success. Hauptman's costumes have an authentic look; their details instantly establish the economic chasm between the Estragon and Vladimir on one hand and Pozzo on the other.

Gonzalez-Wiler's set also follows the kyogen tradition but is modified to suggest more of a down-and-out milieu. The tree is represented by a metal creation and the back wall is covered with cardboard boxes.

Unfortunately, as with Allyson Paris' recent Lab Theatre productions of "Tongues" and "Savage/Love," the audience is seated on three sides of the stage, and sight lines are a problem. Even those in the center section may miss some of the actors' key facial expressions and other subtleties. Anyone seated on either side of the stage will miss much more.

Gonzalez-Wiler, who is directing the drama in partial fulfillment of the Master of Fine Arts Degree requirements in Asian Performance, deserves high marks for his work.

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