SALT LAKE CITY—Since starting the UTBA back in January 2010, I’ve seen over 80 productions across the state. Sting & Honey’s production of Waiting for Godot sits in the top 5 for me.
Founded in November 2010, Sting & Honey’s inaugural production opened last weekend in the Leona Wagner Blackbox Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City. The acting is immediate. The direction is lovely. The design (save for sound) is beautiful. This really is a show that Utah audiences should flock to.
The play features two days in the lives of Vladimir (affectionately called Didi) and Estragon (called Gogo). They sit waiting on a road, by a lone tree, for a man called Godot. As they wait, they tire of waiting. They pass time through argument, games, philosophy, and slim attempts at suicide. The chatty solitude is broken twice in each act: first, by Pozzo and Lucky, a master-slave relationship that brings more of the marked absurdity and occasional somber moments of the play; and second by a messenger from Godot stating that he will not come today, but tomorrow he will surely arrive. And that’s it. The play is about two men waiting on a road for a man that doesn’t come. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when performed well, as Sting & Honey does, this play can be one of the most captivating nights in the theatre you’ll run across.
Samuel Beckett is not a writer that non-theatre folk in Utah generally seek out. His black humor is a bit too avant-garde to tempt me into inviting the casual theatregoer along—but I’d break that rule for this show. The thing is, Sting & Honey did it right. In his Director’s Note, Javen Tanner urges the audience to not get to caught up in trying to analyze the play, but rather to turn attention to our hearts and let the show happen. He comments that, “In their best work, great playwrights rarely write characters they don’t like, and never write characters they don’t love.” As a member of the audience it is clear the love, respect and admiration Tanner holds for these characters and this playwright.
The stage consists of a large raked stage—that is, a slanted stage going up the further back the actor walks—painted a sandy orange. At the center sits a barren tree, somewhat lopsided, but beautiful in its stark presence against the light blue backdrop. The simplicity comes from Beckett, the designer who executed it is sadly unlisted. It’s a lovely design and I can’t help but always go a little wild over the simplicity of the raked stage and what immediate dynamics it brings to movement in the theatre. Tara Lynn Tanner’s costumes brought a slight Tweedledum quality to the duo (Didi and Gogo) and a great visual contrast between Pozzo and Lucky. Brandon Moss’s lighting design was simple yet gorgeous. Every time the moon shone backstage and the lights softly dimmed I relaxed and delighted in the beauty of the scene.
Javen Tanner as Estragon and David D’Agostini as Vladimir are loveable characters that flirt with caricature while remaining grounded in the present. Critics often mention the vaudeville antics of Laurel and Hardy, and while yes, I can see a bit of that in the hat scene, I’m more reminded of the Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland, and I definitely see a little of actor Nate Torrence (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Mr. Sunshine) in Javen’s performance. I’m sure those tone weren’t purposed, but local audience may see the connection and delight, as I did, in the sweet humor brought to each scene.
Tanner and D’Agostini move through each scene with the timing and precision of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (I’ll let you decide who is who.) It’s elegant. It’s simple. And most appropriately they provide a setting where Beckett’s words come alive and float down to the audience. Roger Dunbar’s Pozzo and Cameron Deaver’s embodiment of Lucky were captivating. The stage stopped and all eyes were with these two. While Act II’s scene lent itself a little more didactic than Act I, Dunbar and Deaver established characters with some heft that weighted the stage beautifully alongside Tanner and D’Agostini.
My only complaint for the evening, is the single sound effect. The actors do such a marvelous job projecting throughout the night (if they were mic’d I could not tell) that the sole recorded sound effect feels completely out of place and distracting. A live sound effect offstage would nicely suit the production.
Complaints might be made that the play is too funny or not somber enough. Perhaps. The production reeled me in from the first sight of that lone tree, alongside seemingly pointless conversations between Valdimir and Estragon, past the absurd relationship of Pozzo and Lucky, and on through to the end where our characters are right back where they started.
There is a moment in Act II, where Vladimir, commenting alone while Estragon sleeps, says among other things that, “At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” It’s hard for me to describe the feeling I had at that moment. The whole evening seemed designed to lull me into loving these two characters, relating to them, and then finally letting them teach me a little about my own life. The Greeks called it catharsis, a cleansing of purging or emotions that takes place in a character on stage as well as an intended part of the audience’s experience. It doesn’t happen often for me. Reviewing the past 18 months I’d say the few productions that have caused this catharsis in me would be Kathleen Cahill’s Charm at Salt Lake Acting Company, Pioneer’s production of Twelve Angry Men, Eric Samuelsen’s Borderlands at Plan-B and a handful of readings here and there. To place Sting & Honey’s Waiting for Godot alongside those other productions seems completely appropriate. It really is a marvelous production.
Funny enough, the morning before the show I was commenting to some friends that I was heading to Waiting for Godot, and I made sure to say, “This is not a show you bring a date to.” In fact my Facebook status called out, “I’d like to meet a girl I could take to a Beckett play.” You can be sure, after the night’s performance, I would be thrilled to take friends, family, or the occasional love interest to see this show. It opened my eyes. I literally had that feeling of catharsis the Greeks went on and on about. That’s a mark of a good production for me. Nice work, Sting & Honey. Nice work.